Donald Bruce Bryant
October 15, 1923 – December 31, 2002
In November 1942, I enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Because I was 19, both parents had to sign, as the law said 21. On the day I was supposed to leave, I got an indication of the sometimes-incredible Army "red tape" and confusion ahead. We were sworn in, and then "granted" two-week furloughs, as there was no room for us at Fort Niagara Induction Center (New York). I, like the rest, had quit my job, so I took a bus to New York City and saw "the sights" for two weeks. Among them, at Radio City, we saw an amazing invention without remotely realizing its future potential. You walked up on a little platform in front of a little black box and saw yourself live on a black and white 12-inch screen! Miraculous! Until the war ended, development of television was delayed until 1945.
Soon, I was taken by train to Buffalo, NY and by Army bus to Fort Niagara, and I was introduced to a whole new life where privacy didn’t exist. The latrines (bathrooms) consisted of 20 or 30 toilets in a row with no partitions or dividers and 20-30 sinks and mirrors. At times, you shaved over some else’s shoulder!
Since I apparently had led a sheltered life (with closed and locked bathrooms), I found it very hard to break down the privacy barriers. After about a week (!), I waited until 2:00 a.m. when the latrine was deserted and sneaked in, with the whole place to myself. This soon adjusted.
In about two weeks, several thousand of us were loaded on a troop train and shipped to Miami, Florida. Meals were served Army style in a "mess car," where you went through a freight car made up cafeteria style, filling your tray and then taking it back to your seat to eat it. We arrived in 90-degree Miami heat. It was December, and we were wearing the full olive-drab Army wool winter uniforms and overcoats. We were taken in trucks to what had been a luxury beachfront hotel, now requisitioned by the Army Air Corps. We slept four to a room, in relative comfort in cots and ate meals in an incredibly beautiful "mess hall," once the hotel’s expensive restaurant, overlooking the ocean and beach. Each day we were marched to "processing," lectures, tests, and complete physical exams. We were given our choice to select what we wanted to do in the Air Corps.
Everywhere soldiers marched on the streets of Miami Beach, they sang songs like, "I’ve Been Working on the Railroad," or "The Air Corps Song." Some of the rich and influential (and mostly Jewish) residents formed a committee to call on the Commanding General, to complain about the noise, which usually started at 6:00 a.m. He listened, then asked if they’d rather have the Germans or Japanese doing it… and that was the end of that.
This was all the basic training I ever received. I volunteered for Radio school and Aerial Gunnery training. Just about the time I was getting to like the palm trees and coconuts lying around on people’s lawns, we were shipped again on a long, primitive, dirty troop train. Our destination was secret, as usual.
The very first night out of Miami, I was assigned guard duty at the place where two of the ancient cars joined. About 3:00 a.m., the guard at the other end of the car came running. "Bryant!" he gasped. "When we stopped for water in that last town, somebody ran out with a suitcase and got on the train, between the cars!" A German saboteur! To blow up the troop train! We awakened the train Commander, who pulled the cord to stop the train. We opened the doors and leaped off. Between the cars we found a trembling old colored man, who was only "hitching" a ride to visit his family up in Georgia. He received a tongue-lashing about boarding a military train, then he and his suitcase were left standing beside the tracks in what looked like the middle of the Everglades. In the black dark, all I could see was that it was flat and swampy with tall grass and scrub Palmetto trees.
It wasn’t till a week later as we slowly pulled into the train yards of a grimy northern city, that we opened a window and asked a small boy running beside the tracks where we were. It was Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was the first week in January and about 5 degrees, and we were now all wearing the summer "suntan" tropical Army uniforms!
We were marched to the tarpaper-covered wooden barracks, originally meant for Louisiana but sent by mistake and erected in South Dakota (so the rumor went), because the Army never makes a mistake! These were not insulated and the interior walls were simply the backs of the outside walls. These buildings were long and narrow and were heated with three coal-burning pot-bellied stoves. Someone of us was assigned on a round-the-clock basis on four-hour shifts to keep the fires burning at all costs. Soldiers who were prisoners (deserters, thieves, and bad actors) worked on the hard labor coal detail, loading trucks and delivering coal to the coal bins at each barracks. They were guarded by shotgun-toting military police and wore green "fatigue" coveralls with a yellow "P" at the backs of the knees and middle of the backs for the guards to aim at if they tried to flee!
There was another step between being a student at the Army Air Corps Radio School and a prisoner. You were given weekly progress tests and if you failed these, you were moved to "Spartan Barracks," where there were no "privileges," such a going to town on a pass, writing letters, reading magazines, etc. Only school study materials were permitted, and if this didn’t motivate you to apply yourself, there was a sudden transfer to the infantry.
The commanding officer of this simulated concentration camp was one Colonel Narcissus L. Cote (believe it or not!). He wore old-fashioned knee breeches with knee-high gleaming leather boots. He carried a riding crop, with which he kept nervously striking his boot. To us, he was America’s Adolph Hitler! To say that he ran a tight ship would be putting it mildly. In mid-winter, with daily temperatures well below zero and half-hour waits to be fed at the mess hall, he closed one of the mess halls for more efficiency! This greatly increased the absolute misery of being there. The wait for food, outside in snow and sub-zero cold was now nearly an hour. Whether he was purposely training us for the possible rigors of overseas warfare, or just dictatorial, we never figured out.
I began skipping meals and buying a candy bar and a coke at the PX. This lasted until I got faint and dizzy one day. In desperation, a group of us found a mess hall which strangely wasn’t swamped. Apparently, it was for permanent base personnel. We attempted to eat there and were caught by an officer who took our names and serial numbers saying we would be punished. Fortunately, he didn’t think we would dare lie and didn’t check our "dog-tags"…. I gave the name of Bernard Ziegler, my boyhood violin playing friend and a phony number. The rest, seeing this, also gave different names. Bernard turned out to be 4-F (physically too poor) in the draft and spent the war running a school of the dance. W e never saw this officer again and thereafter attended our own mess hall!
We studied radio theory four hours each day and learned and practiced Morse Code four hours. The school ran two shifts, 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. I was on the late shift, with only Tuesday off. The food was so poor and sparse that on our one day off we would go to town and spend our pay on a two-inch thick steak with all the trimmings and washed it down with a malted milkshake, with pie for dessert. This was probably the way we survived. All you could do otherwise in town was go to the movies or the United Services Organization (commonly known as the USO), which had magazines and papers to read. Then back to the austere, frozen gray camp on a rickety bus for another week. We certainly had the incentive to study and get out of there. The course was 18 weeks.
One day the entire camp was trucked to town to honor Major Joe Foss, a marine fighter pilot home from the Pacific War Theatre. He was an "Ace," having shot down more Jap planes than any other pilot.
We put on a 20,000-soldier parade in a pouring rain singing the required songs. I remember the women in the crowd, crying as we marched along in the soggy drizzle.
One day in March, it was 40 degrees below zero with searing winds and driving snow. At noon it was dark as midnight. But it was our day off and we couldn’t miss a chance to get food! We dressed in layer after layer of clothing, from wool "longjohns" to many sweaters and coats, and finally the heavy wool Army overcoat, a knit hat, scarf, gloves, and a plastic helmet liner. It was so cold that we took turns standing outside the barracks, watching for the bus to appear in the snowy gloom on the street of the camp. Five minutes was anyone’s limit in that weather. Inside the barracks ink froze in its bottle and in fountain pens. This was before the days of "ballpoints," but they would have frozen too! On arrival at the restaurant, it took 20 minutes to disrobe before sitting down to order! But the owner didn’t care--we were the only fools outside on a day like that, and he needed the business.
There were many cases of pneumonia that winter and I actually knew of several men who deliberately showered, then stood outside to "get" pneumonia just to get in the hospital! Rumor had it that if you got pneumonia you got a two-week furlough to recuperate at home. Home was never that much of a drawing card for me, so I never found out if this was true. The worst I had was a respiratory infection.
But slowly I progressed and after 18 weeks I passed 16 words per minute in code speed and completed the radio course and was ready to graduate as an Air Corps Radio Operator/Mechanic. On the last night of school, our euphoria knew no bounds. At 10:30 p.m. we were being marched to our barracks, when suddenly everyone broke ranks and started running! It was a final act of defiance. The screaming commands of the officers were ignored. I found myself running with the rest. In the mad stampede, I tripped and fell in the cinder road. M y knee was damaged and pants were torn, but I resumed the flight!
We arrived at our barracks with all our gear, ready for shipment at 9:00 a.m. We were finally escaping that horrible place! Another guy helped me clean and dress my bleeding knee. I wouldn’t have missed that shipment for anything! One Rochester boy didn’t make it. His wife had a baby in mid-course and, upon being refused a furlough, he went AWOL. When last seen, he was being guarded by an M.P. while on coal detail. Never saw him again.
It was a better train trip this time. It would stop in towns and we would be marched to local restaurants. One morning we awoke and the train was stopped. Even the engine was gone. It was Texas and was as flat as it could be. Fields of blue extended in all directions (Texas Bluebells), with no sign of life. After winter in South Dakota, spring in the fresh scented air of Texas was exhilarating!
That day we stopped in Temple, Texas. I joined a small group of men who got off the train to look for a tailor shop to have our newly awarded Corporal stripes sewed on our shirts. We were about six blocks up in the town in a shop when the train whistle blew. I, of course, was the last to get the stripes sewed on. I paid the tailor, ran the six blocks at top speed, putting on the shirt on the way. I arrived across the street from the nicely landscaped railroad station, looked across a rosebush-lined park to see the train MOVING! And it was gathering speed! I flew across the street, hurdled some rosebushes, and arrived at the second or third last car. H ands reached out the doorway and pulled me aboard! But in the excitement, someone had shouted, "Come on CORPORAL, jump!"
But after reaching our destination, the Army Air Corps Aerial Gunnery School at Laredo, Texas, we once again changed to summer suntan uniforms and I never wore that shirt again as a Corporal! Three months later I had graduated from Gunnery School and received my silver wings and a promotion to Sergeant……
Laredo was a small town right on the Rio Grande River, across from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. A great disappointment--the mighty fabled Rio Grande was a dirty little trickle of water in a weed-filled gully. Two Mexican boys were playing in it. The Mexican town was just a tumbledown slum of old buildings.
We were all eager to get started in school. But my injured knee became infected, necessitating an operation at the base hospital and several weeks of agonizing pain. I lost three weeks at gunnery school and all contact with my previous radio school acquaintances and was moved to a new class.
We were told our new philosophy was to kill or be killed and that anyone not accepting that philosophy should get up and leave. Out of a thousand, one man left. Learned later that he had bad eyes and wore thick glasses and had been sent there by mistake!
For six to seven weeks we studied guns and learned to operate and fire them. Towards the end we majored in .30- and .50-caliber Browning machine guns. It was here that we learned that above 10,000 feet, humans had difficulty in breathing because of the lack of sufficient oxygen in the air. This demonstration was given in an "Altitude Chamber," where we were sealed in and taken to a simulated 20,000-foot and told to remove our oxygen masks. Within seconds, we began to get symptoms of passing out (dying), and quickly learned the value of the oxygen flowing into our masks. Also, the absolute rule that if we had to parachute from a plane at 20,000-25,000 feet, not to open the parachute till we were down to safe breathing altitude. Otherwise, we could die floating down. I never had to "bail out" but I could certainly understand the temptation to get that thing open sooner rather than later!
The last two weeks were what we had all looked forward to: flying and firing machine guns at a target towed by another plane. The first Monday I checked out a parachute (seat pack) and a .30-caliber machine gun and 500 belted rounds of ammunition and, staggering under this load, reported to my assigned airplane. It was a two-seater AT-6, called "the Texan." It was to be my first flight!
We soon found that the pilots of these planes were "rejects" from fighter pilot training, being misfits, bad actors, uncontrollable or unpredictable. As such, they were bored merely being our "taxi driver," out to the target and back. Mine told me to get in the back seat and fasten my parachute harness to a strap attached to the floor and install the gun on its swivel. And that when in the air at the target being towed by another plane, he would wiggle the wings and that I was to stand up in the open cockpit swivel the gun around and pull the handle that put a round (bullet) in the firing chamber ready to fire. When he wiggled the wings again, I was to fire all my ammo at the target.
The great thrill, of course, was in taxiing out to the runway and racing down it and seeing the ground fall away as we became airborne. Overtaking the tow plane and target far out over the Texas border country stretched out below, I stood up at the pilot’s signal and fired all my bullets. This was while standing in the open cockpit right in the direct stream of air from the propeller. The pilot was watching me in his rear view mirror and when he saw the last round go in the run, and my hand reach for the handle to clear it, he flipped the plane upside down. Suddenly, the vast expanse of southern Texas was above me and gravity was trying to get me out. I hung onto the gun for dear life! I would have fallen out, except for the one strap fastened from the floor to my harness. He then went into a steep dive to one side. I felt a tugging at my foot and looked down (up?) to see that it was planted firmly right on the cable that controlled the tail. This interfered with his control of the plane.
After landing, I had to endure his tirade, "reaming me out" for standing on the cable. Of course, I couldn’t remind him that he wasn’t supposed to do aerial acrobatics while being my taxi driver out to the target!
Each gunner had different colored ammunition, so that, supposedly, they could score how many of each color hit the tow target. We were never told our scores; only that we "passed." I never heard of anyone failing……
It was about this time that I discovered that among thousands of men, there were certain ones who would steal from the others. One day while limping back to the barracks after having my knee rebandaged at the Dispensary, I discovered upon entering the barracks, all of my fellow barracks residents standing, stripped to their shorts. Officers were going through all our belongings looking for $250.00 some soldier had had stolen from his wallet during the night. He had been in the lower of a double-decker bunk and had placed his wallet between the spring and mattress of the bunk above. As a coincidence, I had about $290.00, having just received my back pay for the preceding three months. This made me an instant suspect but the victim didn’t identify my money as his, luckily. This experience taught everyone about personal security.
At the end of August 1943, we graduated ready and anxious--we thought--to get at those Japs or Germans. The United States had just won a tremendous air-sea duel with the Japanese--The Battle of the Coral Sea--and had sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers, each with 4,000-5,000 men aboard, plus all their planes.
We were shipped by train to Salt Lake City, Utah, to the Army Air Corps "Advanced Training" school and replacement depot. There, to our utter dismay, we learned that we not only had to take "refresher" courses in all phases of radio, but now had to pass 18 words per minute Morse Code. This after over four months of not hearing any!
Naturally, none of us could pass this. We were living in tents in the Salt Lake City fairgrounds in utter squalor, mail wasn’t coming through, and morale was at its lowest ebb. The weeks dragged on endlessly, and we were not permitted out of the fenced compound. No passes to town were given. One sunny September afternoon on a weekend, some of us were sitting disconsolately on a grassy knoll inside the eight-foot high, barbed-wire topped fence, watching the crowds of people passing by, going into the Utah State Fair, when an old lady walked up the fence, looked at us, and screeched, "If ya’ weren’t bad boys, ya’ wouldn’t be in there!"
It was here on one sad day that that I entered the mess hall for dinner. Over the cafeteria-style serving line was a huge sign: "TAKE ALL YOU WANT - BUT YOU MUST EAT ALL YOU TAKE." A tough-looking master sergeant stood guard at the exit door to see that your tray was empty.
Going through the chow line, I saw what I thought was applesauce being ladled out. I asked for a double helping. Getting to a table I discovered it was mashed turnips!! There was no way I could eat even a teaspoon of turnips…so, when most of the others eating at my table got up and left, I moved down next to the wall. After carefully looking around--no one was looking--I scooped the turnips into the space between the table and the wall. Then, whistling "Dixie," I quickly went out.
Eventually, with no one passing the tests and faced with orders from above for shipment of radio operator-gunners for assembly of air crews, one day we found they had "adjusted" the code machine to what seemed to me to be a slow 16 words per minute, maybe even 14, called it 18, and many of us passed it.
Soon, we were taken in trucks to the railroad station. It was about 9:00 p.m. on a cold, rainy evening and we, with all our baggage, were standing on the train platform waiting endlessly for our dirty old troop train, when in slid a great shiny silver streamliner, "The Hollywood Victory Bond Special." When it stopped, we were gazing right into the picture-sized windows of the luxurious dining car! There, in total comfort, sat Fred Aster and Greer Garson, two of the biggest movie stars of that time. But Fred was totally bald, unlike in his movies! Apparently, he saw no point in wearing his toupee on the train. They were brightly lit; we were in total darkness….what a shock!
After an overnight ride, we were delivered to the Army Air Base in Mountain Home, Idaho. Here we found our names on a bulletin board, assigning us to B-24 aircrews of the now forming 461st Bombardment Group (Heavy). I found myself assigned to Crew #48 in the 766th Squadron. The six enlisted men of Crew #48 (three engineers, two armorers, and me, the radio man) soon met, and at the urging of little (5’ 0") Frankie Manna, decided to go into "town." Mountain Home, we found, was only a wide spot in the road at that time. Frank found a liquor store and bought two quarts of rum. We decided to go on to Boise, 40 miles west. We stood at the roadside, hitchhiking. Meanwhile, the other guys were drinking the rum like it was Coca-Cola! I had never had a drink of hard liquor up to this time, which they thought was hilarious. One swallow was enough! But by the time we were picked up by an empty coal truck, one member of crew #48 was "out of his gourd." Little Frankie hung onto a chain strung across the back of the truck and slid in the wet coal dust on the truck bed.
When we got out in downtown Boise, he was a total mess. Within one bock he whistled at some girls and immediately a Military Police vehicle pulled up and began loading crew #48 for a trip to the Greyhound Station and a trip back to Mountain Home. I, being the only sober one (and, therefore, entrusted to carry the remaining quart of rum in a paper sack), told the M.P.s that, "my wife was in town and did I have to go? They let me go and I went into a nearby movie theatre, sat down, and began sipping the rum. Two hours later, when the lights went up and I stood up to leave, I almost fell out of the balcony! The rest of the night was a blur, but I remember a lot of people grinning at me. During the night, I ran into one of the other crewmembers who had somehow not returned to base. We went into an all night restaurant where the waitress brought us a glass of water. While describing my evening’s activities, I managed to knock his glass of water into his lap……talk about getting a friendship off to a great start.
We met our officers, all lieutenants, the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier, and trained for about a month, flying in the B-24 bomber over the moonscape craters of Idaho. Because the weather there was so bad, it was decided to move the group to a better climate.
On my 20th birthday, October 15, 1943, we were all assembled at the railroad siding for shipment. While standing there, we had a final mail call, and I received a package. It was a full-sized, home-cooked birthday cake, baked by my mother and packaged by my father. It was in perfect condition, and there was nothing to do but cut it up and share it right there while waiting for the train.
We were shipped to Wendover, Utah on the Nevada border, the absolute end of the world. But then were all given furloughs, better known as a 15-day "delay on route," actually 15 days to go from Wendover, Utah to Rochester, New York and back to Fresno, California. If the cake had been one day later, it never would have reached me! There were no airlines as yet, so all this travel had to be by rail.
After days of travel, I finally arrived in Rochester at midnight. I walked six blocks and caught a streetcar (trolley) out to Grafton Street. They didn’t know I was coming. I found the hidden milkbox key and let myself in the side door. They were upstairs in bed. My father called, "Is that you, Jim?" I went up and there wasn’t much sleep that night!
At Fresno, I reported to the Army Air Corps’ Hammer Field and we spent several months there, training again in B-24s. Right after the New Year (1944), we were issued new Colt .45 revolvers in shoulder holsters and new parachutes with jungle packs of bolo knives and first aid kits and water purifying pills. Each day a new rumor swept the area: We were going to England, then Africa, then the South Pacific. The jungle packs seemed to confirm the South Pacific.
At the end of January 1944, the entire ground personnel of the 461st Bomb Group left by train. No one knew for where. Then one day we received hundreds of brand new B-24J bombers in the latest model, direct from the factory in the Los Angeles area! They were painted in various camouflage colors and after a brief breaking-in period, we were finally on our way.
It was like in the movies: Several wives and girlfriends sobbing at the runway as the thundering bombers took off, one by one, into the "Wild Blue Yonder"!
But we soon landed at Hamilton Field, just outside San Francisco, for more interminable physical exams and red tape. I even got some dental work out of this. While there, three of us were in our room, playing poker for pennies and nickels, when a lieutenant fresh out of officer’s school (what had become known as a "90-day wonder") burst in and "caught us gambling"! As punishment, our passes to town were revoked and we were restricted to the base.
This simple-minded foolishness was to further confirm our growing awareness that these people, in positions of total power over us, and who would never see overseas combat service, were our worst enemies and perhaps even enemies of our country’s war effort.
Here we were, only killing time harmlessly, while waiting to be sent overseas to kill Germans or Japanese, or perhaps be killed ourselves, and he has nothing any better to do than harass us and punish us for some insignificant violation of the rules.
At any rate, this only meant that the three of us who weren’t "gambling" went to town the first night and then gave their passes to the "guilty" three the second night! I personally hadn’t even known we could go to town and wouldn’t have planned to go if we had, but now went anyway, just to "beat" them!
It was one more example of the fact that the ground, non-combatant officers of our own army seemed intent on destroying the morale of their own troops, instead of encouraging them. We found they could, and did, bring you up on charges of insubordination for not "seeing" them and failing to salute them!
Along that line: In the beginning we of Crew #48 considered ourselves the best, most model crew in the Air Corps. During our time at Fresno, our pilot, a wonderful guy from Virginia, transferred from bombers to fighters. He was short and could fit more easily into one of those than the big bombers. He was later killed in a training accident.
Another pilot was assigned to us. We soon found that he was one of the type described above, having been in the Army pre-war. Further, on graduation from pilot’s school, because of a red-tape SNAFU, he was made one grade lower than all the other graduates, who were second lieutenants. Our pilot was made a Flight Officer. So, even though he was our plane commander, he was one rank lower than the other three officers, the co-pilot, the navigator, and the bombardier.
This really "rankled" him and made him even harder to get along with. On our first flight he discovered, via the intercom system, that co-pilot Lt. Smith and Bombardier Lt. Jones were called "Smitty" and "Jonesy" by the rest of us. Immediately after landing, he called a meeting of the enlisted men of the crew, during which we were instructed that strict military discipline would be the rule from now on, and that officers of the crew would henceforth be addressed by their rank and last name: Lt. Smith, etc., whether they wanted to or not. After the meeting, he cornered me and wanted to know my "code speed." Then he announced that as an experienced pre-war radio operator, he would be giving me speed checks frequently. This never happened, but with the rest, was sufficient to cast a pall of dissension and negativism over the whole crew. From that day on, it was all down hill for Crew #48. He even held up possible promotions for crewmembers!
He was a perfect illustration of how one person can affect the performance and efficiency of many. He was, however, a very good pilot and was very capable of flying the big plane.
Soon we were on our way to West Palm Beach, Florida and then the island of Trinidad (British Colony) and on to Brazil, South America.
While crossing the endless jungle of the Amazon Basin, the entire crew of ten, plus three passengers, was asleep, and the plane was flying and the bomber went into a steep dive towards the ground. Everyone was thrown to the ceiling. Neither the pilot nor co-pilot could reach the controls to pull it out! I was wedged between the radio transmitter and the seat and my parachute was on the other side of the room. The handle to open the bomb bays to jump out was 8 feet away. After a brief and totally fruitless struggle with the forces of inertia and gravity, I relaxed and got ready to die.
But, they eventually pulled it out of the dive and we continued on to our destination. Those sleeping in the rear of the plane were thrown against the ceiling made of corrugated aluminum, which resulted in many abrasions and cuts and bruises. These had to be treated at the hospital on arrival.
After the incident, the co-pilot went back to tend to the injured. He soon returned, saying, "Bryant, where’s the water jug?" I gave him the gallon thermos, then remembered that we had filled it with Coca Cola before leaving Florida, after hearing that we couldn’t get Coca-Cola overseas: Another false rumor. He wasn’t too pleased when he discovered this, but the injured recipients in the rear didn’t seem to mind!
For many years after this incident, I had dreams of cutting my way through the steamy jungle, trying to find my way out to civilization. Snakes, alligators, and piranha fish dogged my every step.
In Belem, Brazil, natives would wander through the camp selling monkeys and parrots. Soon everyone who had ever wanted a monkey had one. No thought was ever given as to where we were going etc…they just bought monkeys! That night at midnight, when we took off across the Atlantic Ocean, all the monkey owners discovered that their "pets" weren’t housebroken and were wild and quite vicious and would bite you if they could.
As dawn spread rosy fingers over the endless sea below, monkeys were seen floating down to the ocean in small parachutes for the long swim back to Brazil….
I, as radio operator, had to send hourly position reports back to the Air Corps’ Control Station in Brazil. These were in Morse Code and were furnished to me by the navigator and were needed for air-sea rescue in case we went down. Each hour through the black night, the ground station sounded more and more distant. Then, in mid-ocean, I called Dakar, French West Africa Air Corps ground station and established contact and turned control over to them. That afternoon, we landed in Dakar at a palm tree-lined airport. No monkeys were aboard any of our planes. As each bomber contained a model of the famous and top secret Norden bombsight, a member of the crew had to stand guard every night. It was a well-known fact that the Arabs would do anything for money, and many of them were paid by the Germans for acts of sabotage to the aircraft traveling by this route to Italy, where the front lines of the war now were.
We proceeded to Marrakech, then ever eastward to Algiers and Tunis. The weather of February became a prime factor and we were marooned in both these cities for several weeks. Bombers, coming in a steady flow from the U.S. to Italy would land on the sea of mud runways, and at the first touch of the brakes, would slide and skid sideways down the field.
One of the first blows to our culture came when we emerged from the mess tent after breakfast. There is a trash barrel in which you hit your mess kit to "clean it," before dipping it into soapy hot water to rinse it. But here by the trash barrel stood a ragged little Arab boy with a pail. He wanted your leftovers, coffee, etc,--it all went into the same pail. When asked where he lived, he pointed to a large tent, far off, under some palm trees. This pail of our garbage, was their daily food. The Arabs, we found, customarily all sit around the central pot of food and eat with their hands…. They also wear long robes or sheets and when nature calls, wherever they are, they merely squat down then walk away!
Somewhere in North Africa, the pilot told me that, that night I had the guard detail at the officers’ liquor tent. Seems they planned to have an Officer’s Club when we got to Italy, and on the way overseas, had purchased hundreds of cases of whiskey on the Island of Trinidad. Every bomber was loaded with it, along with our gear. None of this was intended to be shared with the enlisted men.
Not long after I had received this order, the tail gunner, a lanky guy from Kentucky, sidled up to me and murmured in his southern drawl, "Brahnt, if y’all heah anythin’ round that tent, ‘bout midnight, don’t shoot or anythin"…hear?" I got the message, and though he never offered to share, he was drunk for several days.
It was on a dreary and raw cold rainy night at around 3:00 a.m., outside Tunis, that I sat on top of a 55-gallon oil drum being used as a toilet. I had terrible diarrhea. No shelter was provided and I was wet to the skin. The next day we were scheduled to fly to our final destination in Italy. Before boarding the bomber, I saw the doctor, who had the great title of "Flight Surgeon," though it was rumored that in civilian life he was a veterinarian. I went over to him and explained the situation and requested "something to shut me off." This pompous officer only said, "You want to go, don’t you?" Meaning I was faking so I wouldn’t have to go to the war zone. Then he refused, saying his "bag was packed" on the plane he was riding in.
On the four-hour flight across the Mediterranean Sea and Sicily to a newly constructed double runway airport near Cerignola, Italy, I threw up several times. After landing, of course, I was required to clean up the plane….
On a farm outside Cerignola, the ground forces of the 461st Bomb Group, 766th Squadron, who had endured a long boat ride in a convoy to Italy, had been erecting tents, they thought, for them to live in. After the job was done, they were directed to an ancient stone and concrete stable littered with old urine-soaked hay and manure. They then had to clean this up and it became their new home. The tents were for the air personnel, neatly segregated into officers’ section and enlisted section. We slept six to a tent, on cots with mosquito netting over them on T-bars. The officers were four to a tent.
With the aforementioned pilot more or less in charge, they soon weren’t speaking to each other and had drawn chalk lines on the brick floor, dividing their tent into four quarters, much to our amusement! The pilot had told them that they were keeping a dirty area and ordered them to keep it militarily clean.
These tents were "heated" by a "stove" made of a 55-gallon oil drum cut in half. A full 55-gallon oil drum was placed outside the tent, and oil was piped through a length of copper tubing welded onto a metal cup inside the half oil drum in the center of the tent. When working well, these imitation stoves would get red hot on top, and when the mess hall food became progressively intolerable, we would "steal" bread from the mess hall and toast it to eat in the evenings. When the officer in charged noticed that the bread was disappearing like wildfire, he rationed it one piece per person in the serving line.
We didn’t dare leave these stoves going all night and, after we started flying missions, it became my duty to light it in the morning. This was because I, as the radio operator, had to go to the 3:00 a.m. officer’s briefing, while the other five enlisted men went to the 4:00 a.m. enlisted briefing. These briefings showed us where we were going each day on a giant map. When the red yarn, marking the route, went up into Germany or France or Rumania, it was greeted with groans of dismay; while a "milk run" to Italy or Yugoslavia was seen with relief as not being too dangerous.
Our stove leaked, or dripped oil all night into the oil burner cup, and when I inserted a lighted match in the mornings, sometimes it would explode! When this happened, the stove did a somersault, the stovepipes all fell down, I was knocked over backwards, and literally tons of soot and oily black "hangers" filled the tent! This was followed by the groans and curses of the five remaining in bed. After three or four of these experiences, I refused to light it any more, and the others didn’t insist….
But, on the first evening at the farm, I decided to answer the call of nature and, taking a flashlight, ventured out into the black Italian night. No permanent outside lights were permitted in case of German aerial observation or possible bombing. I asked someone which way to the bathroom. He said just walk to the end of the row of tents and turn to the right. I followed my flashlight and came upon an incredible sight. Three or four men were squatting over a foot-wide trench in the ground. I did an about face and knew I had experienced culture shock before, but this was too much. Besides, what if you fell in?!
I got a shovel and went for a walk in the woods, but the next day I started using the officer’s latrine. One where you sat with six other guys and read the paper…. No one ever asked what I was doing there and soon they got around to building one for the enlisted men.
These buildings were built very light, with pine boards about three-feet high and screening the rest of the way up to the roof. When the six-foot deep trenches under the eight-holer boards became pretty full, an Italian prisoner of war was employed to tip the whole building over, pour a 55-gallon drum of 100-octane aviation gasoline into the trench, then light it up and burn out the trenches. One day he did it backwards: poured the gasoline, then decided to "use" the latrine. Sitting down on one of the holes, he lit a cigarette and flipped the match into the next hole. The resulting blast left him hanging in a nearby tree and destroyed the latrine!
At about this time, another incident occurred that once again illustrated to us enlisted men the sheer stupidity and uncaring, self-centered incompetence of some of our officers. One cold, blustery day in March, an "administrative" ground officer noticed that some members of flying crews were wearing their fur-lined flying boots as casual, every-day attire around the camp. He issued an order that this would not be done in the future, and it was an understandable, reasonable order. But that night, one of the aircrew’s tents burned to the ground. The six men sleeping in it were lucky to escape with the clothes on their backs and their flying boots. The next morning, the aforementioned officer decided to call a 6:00 a.m. formation. Guess he wanted to lecture the men on the solitary idea that popped into his head during the night. When we were all lined up in front of him, he saw the six men wearing their flying boots. He ordered them to take them off and stand in their bare feet in the frozen snow. All attempts to explain to him about the fire were cut off. In fact, attempts to ask permission to speak were curtly answered, "Refused?"
A short time later, this officer went on a mission with one of the aircrews. He picked a safe, easy one, just to get his required "flying time" (four hours a month) to receive 50% more flying pay. When, at 10,000 feet, the crew put on their oxygen masks, he did too. About 5 minutes later, semi-conscious and half-dead, it was discovered that someone had removed the oxygen mixer valve from his mask. They had to shove the oxygen hose in his mouth and turn on pure oxygen, and then that plane had to take him back for treatment. He just could not imagine why anyone would want to do that to him! But it "made a Christian" out of him and thereafter, he became almost human.
After weeks and weeks of delay because of bad winter weather, we finally had our #1 mission scheduled. After the early morning briefing, we were in the planes and extremely ready to go! Then it was cancelled--a reconnaissance plane reported heavy clouds over the target. We were supposed to bomb a railroad bridge in northern Italy from 20,000 feet. The Germans were using it to supply their armies in mid-Italy.
Someone got the brilliant idea to take six bombers and go in at low level, flying right down along the riverbed, between the high banks of the gorge. W hen we came to the bridge and pulled up, the bombs would be dropped at its base, with delayed fuses (so the explosions wouldn’t get us, too). Meanwhile, we gunners would take care of any Germans or Italians standing around in the vicinity.
They asked for volunteers and everyone raised their hands. If nothing else was accomplished, it probably would have frightened the Germans to death. Cooler heads at 49th Wing, Fifteenth Air Force, prevailed and vetoed the idea.
But, soon we were on our way to our individual goals of 50 missions. 50 missions = return to America: an idea which now seemed to grow daily! So-called romantic Italy was simply not! One dawn at first light, 30 bombers rolled down the runways and rose into the sky, forming into flights of six, then out to sea and up the west coast of Italy, past Anzio, where our infantry had made a landing and were really in trouble, being pinned down on the beach by the Germans. We were told they sent us by this route so our ground forces could see us and get their morale built up. Later, we heard that they were most disappointed and demoralized when we didn’t turn in and attack the Germans!
Later, deep in hostile German-occupied Italy, we bore down on the city of Ferrara, our target --their massive railroad yards. I found I liked to hang over the side, I was the left-waist machine gunner, and watch the bombs fall and explode on impact. They "walked" right down the railroad yards, wrecking that place for a while. The Germans were experts, though, in repair and would soon have the trains running again.
It was here we learned about Flak. I had noticed many flashes of light on the ground as we came over the city. Soon, black puffs appeared all around and under the planes and "bang" under me and my right foot involuntarily lifted off the floor. A piece of metal shrapnel had torn through the bottom of the plane, and now ricocheted around off the inside walls of the plane. There was a two-inch hole in the floor. The piece had not touched me but just fractionally missed my boot.
The other gunner ran, in absolute terror, and squatted down, trying to "hide" beside an ammunition container. I remember standing there and staring into his frightened eyes, above his oxygen mask, for several seconds. Total fear and cowardice were there--he had abandoned his gun. Until he recovered, I watched both left and right sides. Luckily there were no German planes around. They rarely, if ever, defended Italian cities, saving their planes and fuel and ammunition for when we were attacking Germany, or the oil fields of Rumania. No further mention was made of this incident. He later found the piece of metal and kept it as a souvenir. Though more than half our crewmembers are now dead of the date of this writing, this member is still alive and living in Virginia.
While on these missions, we wore heated suits. They were like long-john underwear, only wired; much like a heated blanket is today. Over them, we wore just a thin nylon flying suit (coverall type) and a leather jacket and fur-lined boots and gloves. One day, at 25,000 feet and -40 degrees (40 degrees below zero) temperatures, the heat shut off to our suits in the rear of the plane. For the next hour we fought off freezing to death, while the same gunner mentioned above, who had graduated from Aircraft Mechanics School, failed to know how to replace a burned-out fuse on the wall three feet away. He "just didn’t know about that." Consolation: He froze too!
We usually flew every other day. But, as time went on, we sometimes had to fill in on our days off on crews that had had people wounded. On one such day, I was assigned to fly in the lead plane as radio operator. At the 3:00 a.m. briefing that day, I learned the target for that day was Vienna, Austria. That meant the Germans would throw everything they had into the defense of the city.
As radio operator for the Colonel flying the lead plane, my only duties that day would be (1) to remain at the radio and listen for the Fifteenth Air Force secret recall word of the day. This would be sent in Morse Code and meant, for whatever reason, that the mission was cancelled and the whole group was required to return to base. They changed the word daily. And (2), after the bombs were dropped on Vienna (oil storage yards), the Bombardier and Navigator supplied me with a message to Fifteenth Air Force Headquarters describing the observed results of the bombing, the exact time and weather over the target. I encoded it in the secret code of the day then sent it in Morse Code to the Ground Control Station back in Italy.
Everything went according to plan. I had no gun position to man, and being bored, stood up and stood just behind the pilot and co-pilot to watch the scene as we approached Vienna. My earphones gave me nothing but a steady flow of static. But my eyes beheld an incredible scene. Hundreds of other American bombers were in line ahead of us on this massive strike, and we were in a parade. Smoke and flame were rising over this great city on the Danube River. The sky ahead was filled with black puffs of exploding flak shells. German fighter planes were diving everywhere in dogfights with American fighter planes, and in between attacking the bombers, whose gunners were firing back. Every once in a while, a bomber would slowly peel off from the formation, smoking, and parachutes would blossom in the smoke. Tracer bullets were crisscrossing the whole scene. Bombs were falling in long columns from the bombers ahead.
I sat back down at the radio and snapped on my parachute, then eased into the heavy flak vest: Sort of like a bullet-proof vest, with bars of steel back and front, then a steel infantry helmet on my head. Then I tried to become as small as possible inside this protection. I could hear and feel the vibration of our machine guns firing. The top turret gunner above me was firing and shell casings were falling all over the cabin. The bomb bay doors to my right opened. There were several bangs as shrapnel tore through the cabin’s aluminum skin. After one bang, the cabin filled with what looked like smoke or dust particles. Later, I found that a piece of shrapnel had gone through the outer skin of the thermos jug and the flying dust-like particles were the insulation layer blown into the air. Another piece went through a part of the radio beside me but didn’t affect its performance. This was one trip that I didn’t watch the bombs go down!
On another flight, I replaced a wounded right waist gunner and on the way to Germany, the plane caught the turbulence of the prop-wash of the bombers ahead and bounced around quite a bit. The other waist gunner suddenly lost his nerve and had a mini-nervous breakdown, putting on his parachute and trying to open the hatch door in the floor of the plane, in order to jump out. He was crying and screaming, "That’s it! I’m getting out of here!" Two of us had to sit on him till the co-pilot came back. We had to turn back and lost credit for a mission that day. He was transferred to the ground crew. I just found out that he died in 1984.
Another time on a mission to Rumania, one of our engines was shot out and a big piece of the aluminum "skin" of the plane got torn off. We lost altitude and it looked like we wouldn’t make it over the high coastal mountains of Yugoslavia. The squadron "covered" us as long as possible then had to leave, as we couldn’t keep up. The Germans always loved a wounded straggler as easy pickings, but no fighters showed up. With parachutes on, we just made it through the peaks and got out over the Adriatic Sea.
Over the intercom came: "Navigator from Pilot." "Navigator here." "How many minutes to the coast of Italy?" "Uh, just a minute….20 minutes." "You sure?" "Yes, of course. Why?" "We only got gas for 17 minutes…." (Long silence.) (We snap on our parachutes again.) (We checked our inflatable "Mae West" flotation vests.) (Our blood pressure was rising steadily.) The rest of the conversation consisted of the Navigator plaintively asking, "How could this be?" "Well, we musta lost it, etc." The coast of Italy came and went. It was only a joke played on the navigator but a killer on the nerves of the rest of us.
Then, they were lost. No joke this time. The navigator and pilots hadn’t a clue as to where in Italy we were. From the air, no town has its name facing up in huge letters. Now the gas was getting low. I began seeing myself spending the rest of my life on an Italian goat farm. We wandered around southern Italy for awhile like that. Parachutes got put on again. Then, over the intercom came "Wait a minute! Okay, I know where we are! Turn left! Turn left!" The pilot turned left and just as he did, all the engines still operating "coughed" and black smoke belched out. We believed this was it, and I actually had a leg out the window and sat on the edge ready to push off. But, once again, we recovered and soon limped in to the landing field!
While I was overseas, one great source of personal amusement was the fact that back in Rochester my mother had joined the Air Corps Mothers Association! Once every two weeks, all these middle-aged ladies met and made things for the soldiers. Each meeting started with a rousing rendition of "The Air Corps Song." They all stood and sang,
"Off we go, into the wild blue yonder
Flying high, into the sun!
Down we dive,
Zooming to meet their thunder.
At ‘em boys,
Give her the gun!
We live in fame! Or go down in flame,
Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps!"
Just the picturing of the scene of all those women, hand held over their hearts, aflame with patriotism, singing this stirring, stimulating song, was enough to bring a grin to my face.
One day, we bombed the German submarine yards at Toulon, on the south coast of France. We droned northward up the coast of Italy, across the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Germans had set up an elaborate smoke screen system and, of course, knew by radar that we were coming. By the time we formed up and started in, smoke obscured everything. We dropped the bombs into it and swung away, out of France, and headed back to Italy.
Suddenly, I saw a speck in the sky, miles away. It got rapidly larger, and I didn’t have time to alert the rest of the crew. Only the other waist gunner and I saw it. He watched as I fired at it. It was a Messerschmitt-109 with a yellow nose. For some strange reason, we never saw his wing guns fire at us, and as he rolled over and went under us (with me sending clouds of lead at him) he trailed black smoke and began falling end over end, tumbling down the sky to the ocean four miles below. We watched it all the way down. No other German planes appeared.
Then, there was the unforgettable day when, cruising along over the Adriatic Sea on the way back to our base, the other waist gunner and I were having a cigarette, when the lower ball gun turret began slowly retracting into the plane. Soon, the door opened and the gunner, Frank Manna of Kenosha, Wisconsin, crawled out. Apparently, his teeth were just about floating as he pointed at the "relief tube" hanging on the wall, indicating that he needed to use it. With the roar of four engines and the rush of air through the open windows, talking was impossible. I tapped him on the shoulder and, in sign language, told him the tube was inoperable. At 40 degrees below zero, it freezes solid when the first person uses it.
Now, Frank was only five feet tall and had a big black moustache and sad, sorrowful Italian eyes. He stood staring at me for a few minutes. Then he looked around and picked up a steel infantry helmet from the floor and proceeded to fill it. Then, before we could move, he stepped to the open window and threw it out. Instantly, he received it right back, square in the face! He slowly turned, almost gasping for breath, looking at us with his sad, expressionless face. His eyebrows, even his moustache, was dripping. He was trying not to laugh, but you could see a nervous giggle was about to break through.
For the next half-hour, I was helpless with laughter and rolled hysterically on the floor. Frank dried his head with something and wordlessly trying to preserve his dignity, got back into his turret. This may just have been the highlight of his life. He died in 1989. He had been the worst drunk that day in Mountain Home, Idaho, about nine months before.
Each crew was sent to "Rest Camp" on the Isle of Capri, ten miles off Naples. This was for one full week during our tour of duty in Italy. It was there that little Frank, sloshed to the gills decided he wanted to sing with the band. He and I were sitting at a table at an open-air restaurant on the main cobblestone square of the town of Capri. We were right by the orchestra, a large, 12-piece one. The band, after some negotiation, agreed to accompany him. He then taught me a small speech in Italian that I remember to this day, and I, also feeling little pain, took the microphone and addressed the crowd of about 150 people.
"Attenzione! Attenzione! Presentamo Don Chi Chi in canzone d’ amore d’ Isola del Capri!" (Attention! Attention! Presenting Don Chi Chi in a song of love of the Isle of Capri!)
He then got up and signaled the orchestra and began a perfectly terrible rendition of "‘Twas on the Isle of Capri that I found her--etc., etc." Towards the end, he slowly slid down the microphone stand to the floor, where we had to carry him away.
Our navigator was one of those slick characters who could always arrange anything, or get anything, no matter how impossible. By pulling strings with higher-ups he knew, he arranged for himself to go to the Isle of Capri with the very first crew to go, when they first started the program. Many weeks later, when it was our crew’s turn to go, he had to stay and fly with another crew. While we were gone, and on one of his missions, four German planes came out of the sun and destroyed four bombers. His plane was one of them and was shot down. He parachuted into Germany and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp! Evidently, that was one thing he couldn’t "fix." He died in the 1960s.
Slowly, we approached the magic number of 50 missions. Trouble was that the missions became progressively more dangerous. The allies invaded France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and we supported this by steadily bombing from the south. The pressures and tension mounted as many were wounded, killed, or shot down. One day as we sat playing cards in our tent on our off day, parachutes and people floated down all around us as a crew abandoned their dying plane over the field, rather than trust it to land.
One interesting thing that I have forgotten to include was discovered by our ground troops as they advanced across Europe. Most trees around and in cities were draped with Christmas tree tinsel; tons of it.
Early in the European Air Offensive, it was discovered that if the first bombers at the target city dropped tinsel, and the rest following did too, it would float down in a curtain, completely ruining the German radar’s ability to know our exact height, which was used to set the altitude at which the flak shells would burst. Until the Germans caught on, their shells consistently went off too low (they were aiming at the curtain of tinsel floating down)!
So, early on, we gunners in the waist of the plane, at the windows, found cases of tinsel in the planes each morning. We had the job of throwing this out. Each little box would burst in the air stream, and it would float down. In answer, they would then send one plane to get our altitude and then radio the information to the gun crews on the ground. This plane, of course, was the first target of our escorting fighter planes.
One day in July 1944, on my day off, I hitchhiked to the coastal city of Bari. I was picked up by a truckful of Polish soldiers. We couldn’t communicate at all, but I gave them a pack of American cigarettes, which made them my friends forever. Then, they gave me one of theirs and I knew why. It tasted like wet cardboard dipped in sheep droppings! No wonder they all want to come to America!
Bari was an operating supply port for the Allied armies. Ships were busily unloading at the docks facing the Adriatic Sea. The blue skies were crowded with anti-bomb and anti-aircraft balloons held in place by long, steel cables. But the Germans had lost their power to attack by air and didn’t interfere with this operation. I was hungry and asked someone where to get something to eat. He pointed to a boarded-up, out of business restaurant. I said, "But it’s closed!" He said, "Just go around the back." On the way around the building I passed a sign saying, "Off Limits to all Allied Military Personnel." I tried a door and inside found hundreds of military people eating…there were waiters and cashiers, etc. This was undoubtedly stolen or "black market" food being sold in direct violation of the law. Someone was getting paid off. The meal was delicious.
An interesting occurrence at the farm base of the 766th Squadron was the monthly visit of the Baron. He was the owner of all this property; the rich landowner who was being paid rent by good old Uncle Sam for the use of his property to conduct the war! Undoubtedly, he was a big supporter of the fascist Mussolini government, which in turn supported Hitler and the Germans. He drove a horse and buggy and the Italian peasants would all remove their hats and bow to him, while we merely waved.
One boring day, with excitement always lurking near, we sat playing cards in our tent. It was quiet over the encampment; half the force was gone on a mission. Suddenly, we heard shouting and commotion and the sound of vehicles starting. Soon I learned that the bomb dump was on fire! This was a former pasture, where all the bombs were stored, awaiting loading into the bombers. The dry grass on the Italian farm had caught fire, and the bombs were in danger of going off. Among them were thousands of fragmentation bombs (anti-people bombs) and also fire bombs (to start fires). The usual method of delivery to the German cities was (1) the big 500 or 1000 lb. demolition bombs to bust everything up; (2) the fire bombs to start the wreckage on fire; (3) then the fragmentation bombs, which throw "daisy cutters," or pieces of shrapnel, in all directions to get the fire fighters.
Soon, here came the First Sergeant in his jeep to recruit fire fighters. He was driving between the tents; screaming and hollering for everybody to get out there and fight the fire. We looked at each other. Someone said, "Sure…." Each man hid behind his cot, hidden by the hanging blankets and mosquito netting. The sergeant pulled open the tent flap and for a long minute gazed around the silent tent. Then he left and we resumed breathing. Somehow they got it out without us.
One day in town, several of us were looking for a place to eat. This was forbidden: to eat food that was for "the people." But a small boy took us through narrow dingy streets to a doorway in a stone building. H e ushered us through strings of hanging beads. Inside was one large room. The whole Italian family was about to eat dinner. The boy jabbered in Italian. The father leapt up and barked an order. The old man and old woman (Grandpa and Grandma) got up and slunk to a corner, despite our horrified protests. But this was their custom, and for $1.00 each we received home-cooked eggs and spaghetti. Frankie Manna interpreted. This was the only way they could get money. W e were kind of embarrassed, but it did taste good.
The local price structure was tightly controlled by the military government. A haircut was 7 cents; a shave 3 cents. We would tip the barber a dollar!
When we took our laundry to a local housewife, she would immediately send a small boy out for a bottle of wine for us. It was so bad we could hardly drink it, but Frank said it would be an insult to refuse it, so we forced it down. We had to supply her with yellow bar soap, as they could get no soap. Then she would hang our clothes out to dry on clotheslines on pulleys, stretched across the street, over the heads of passersby.
Soon, the magic day arrived for my last mission. As I got in the patched-up bomber that morning, I silently said, "Lord, if you let me come back just one more time, I promise I’ll never get in one of these things again." This held for about 25 years, until I had to fly by airline to New York City in the last 1960s when my brother Jim lost his eight-year old daughter to Chicken Pox Encephalitis. I figured I could be excused for that.
All of us made it through the ordeal except the Navigator. Before we left by truck to Naples to board a troopship for New York, our esteemed pilot finally was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. His long-awaited triumph was killed, however, when the other three officers on the crew, already 2nd Lieutenants, made 1st Lieutenants the same day! His ulcer took a turn for the worse that day. He will never know that if we had ever been shot down and parachuted into German-controlled territory that the revolvers carried by each crew member would have been looking for him, not the Germans.
The troopship took 13 days to reach New York. In mid-ocean, it developed propeller trouble and was left by the 50-ship convoy to make repairs, while a single American Destroyer circled slowly around, watching for the German submarine that didn’t show up. The Statue of Liberty towered over us and was never so beautiful as we passed it in foggy New York Harbor on our way to New Jersey and unlimited ice cream, hamburgers, and the one and only America, so foolishly taken for granted and abused by most Americans today.
After being deloused, disinfected, and inspected, I was given a 30-day furlough. My brother Doug had enlisted in the Navy and was stationed at "Boot Camp" at Sampson, New York on Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. I got some gasoline on my 30-day ration card and took my father’s car and went down there. They admitted me and directed me to his company headquarters. As I drove through the base, I suddenly became aware that everyone on foot was saluting me! I was in a sort of Air Corps uniform, with a leather flying jacket with no rank showing. At headquarters, as I walked in, the sailor on guard duty snapped to, and did a very good "present arms" holding his rifle in front of him. This actually frightened me! I muttered "At ease!" and went in the office. They were just taking no chances of missing an officer salute, which would have meant punishment.
I found Doug in his barracks. He eventually became an armed guard, part of a Navy anti-aircraft gun crew assigned to Merchant Marine ships, private vessels which carried war materials to the forces overseas. The war by now was winding down to end in the next year (1945) and he never saw a Jap or German. After my discharge, the family went to meet him at the train depot. He had grown a moustache and was carrying two Jap rifles and a Japanese flag. It was sensational as he got off the train and the crowd was thrilled! (The returning Hero!)
Brother Jim was in the seventh grade at #39 School and introduced me to his teacher, Miss Janet Stockwell, who boarded with a family in a house just across the street from ours. I was a late bloomer but was now becoming interested in girls. Miss Stockwell invited me to talk with her class about the war and Italy, and I brought a few souvenirs and pictures to show. This was her first year teaching and though she was a little older than I was, we started dating. I was also invited to talk to the class of the old hag who gave me the reading test, but never went.
Miss Stockwell soon supplied me with brochures and pamphlets on the Catholic Church and tried to set up an appointment with a priest for me…but I escaped in the nick of time, back to the Air Corps. Besides, my mother had only negative things to say about Janet, mainly because of the Catholic thing. One of my mother’s favorite little jokes about her, referring to her somewhat heavy legs, was, "Janet certainly has a good "understanding,"….doesn’t she?" The teacher eventually married a returning Marine and had four children.
Another girl I took out was a girl who got my name from someone and wrote to me. She lived in Fairport, outside of Rochester, NY. After meeting her, I was told that before our date, she needed to take me over to her grandmother’s house…grandmother began to question me right away: "Do you live on Grafton Street? Do you have a brother Douglas?" Baffled, I answered her questions as best I could, but in answer to my questions about why her questions, got no straight answers. Later, in telling my mother about this, she confessed that Doug had gotten into some kind of trouble; something about a car taken without the owner’s permission. Anyway, he had been arrested, and it made the papers (to my mother’s everlasting mortification), and this girl’s beady-eyed grandmother had caught it. Needless to say, it was our first and last date and the end of a correspondence.
I also dated Viola Mulliner, a girl I had met at Kamp Kontent, the Baptist Church Camp, several years before when we were both 16. She lived at the YWCA and I had to pick her up there in a lobby full of single girls, in a time when men were in short supply! It was like a jungle in there….
Too soon, I returned to Miami Beach, Florida for "processing." There we went through a tremendous physical exam, hundreds of men without clothes, moving slowly past about 30 doctors. At the end, I was informed that I was being sent to Nashville, Tennessee, Air Corps Convalescent Hospital. Of course I said, "You must have someone else’s papers," but no, they were mine. They felt I was "a little nervous."
Nashville was simply a total R&R (rest and relaxation) place--they bused us to football games, etc., but mostly we were on our own, free to go to town, sleep, etc. Food, ice cream, baked goods, and milk were available any time you felt like going to the mess hall, 24 hours a day. None of the other branches of service even began to treat their returnees this well!
In the Fall of 1944, a lot of us were transferred to Fort Logan Hospital at Denver, Colorado. They were going to fly us there, but, to a man, we refused. I guess a lot more than me made a promise! One day, at Fort Logan, I ran into Frank Manna, the guy who had the trouble at the window of the plane. This was the only time I ever saw any of the plane crewmembers again. He wanted to go to town, same as always. So, a couple of others and I went. He took us to a big dance hall where you paid admission up front and danced if you could find a partner. It was packed with people. Frank immediately locked onto some girls sitting at a table. I had always been embarrassed by his direct approach! But soon he was beckoning us over. I was sent to find their friend who was dancing. Her name was Norma Lee. A nd thus, I met my future wife!
Shortly thereafter, I was released to regular duty and sent back to Miami for assignment. This time, I was alone on the train, fare paid by the Government. This time I was sent to a Bombardier’s School in Childress, Texas. There I found that all newly arriving overseas returnees were entitled to (another!) furlough. I had already had three or four since returning from Italy. Rochester, New York was becoming tired of me! And vice versa. So I took this two weeks in Denver, visiting Norma. After this, we corresponded.
Back at Childress, I was assigned to the maintenance hangar to work on the airplanes on which the Bombardier students practiced bombing. The hangar boss was a Staff Sergeant. So was I. He never assigned me any job. After three days of wandering around the hangar for eight hours, I returned to Personnel.
They said, well, we don’t need any machine gunners or radio operators, but would I like a job in their newly established Personal Affairs Office? Next day I had my own desk, a steady flow of "customers," and a girl to do my typing. I was in charge of allotments of pay! Family allotments, War Bond allotments, etc. I filled out the forms, wrote letters of inquiry, etc., for the head officer’s signature, and the girl typed them. The head officer, a Major, was an empire builder, and soon we had five other overseas returnees working there, and several Lieutenants, each with their own girl typist!
Our main problem was with the Negro troops, all segregated into Squadron F, who, every time they went on furlough, got married (again and again/no divorces), then each time they returned put in applications for allotments to each bride! They were all from Georgia and most were illiterate and couldn’t write their names. Several were processed through our office in handcuffs, being taken away for extended tours at Leavenworth Penitentiary. One of my more talented coworkers penned the following poem, titled:
AN ODE TO STAFF SERGEANT BRYANT
He’s Uncle Sam’s Allotment Man
The Hero of Squadron F.
He’ll get you a check fo’ all de folks
On dat you can surely bet.
Fo’ uncles an’ cousins an’ nieces an’ aunts
Fo’ folks dat you knowed all yo’ life
Dat boy’s so good he can even get
A check fo’ yo’ common-law wife!
When de war is over an’ we all go back
To our homes in Alabam’,
We’ll spend de dough he got us
From de man called Uncle Sam.
Signed: The gang down in Sqdn. F
At the end of May 1945, the Americans, French, English, and Russians drove to Berlin and Germany surrendered. Adolph Hitler committed suicide. Life in Childress, Texas went on. In July, I sent for Norma and we were married on July 22, 1945. We found one room in a rooming house. Lucky to get it as there was almost no housing available in that town. Every corner of that big house was crammed with soldiers and their wives.
In August, Japan was atom-bombed into submission. President Franklin Roosevelt had died that spring in his fourth term as President. After that, Congress decreed that two terms were the limit for any President. Harry S. Truman made the decision to use the A-bomb to save countless American lives, which would have been lost in an invasion of their country.
I had taken Norma to Rochester to meet the family. When we returned to Childress, I found almost everyone gone! Soon as the Japanese quit, the Government started the huge process of discharging the American war machine. All my coworkers had been shipped out. I was told that I would leave the next day!
Norma went to relatives in Council Bluffs, Iowa, while I went to Fort Dix, New Jersey. Two weeks later, on September 30, 1945, I was presented with my honorable discharge papers and released to the tender mercies of the civilian world. It had been a little less than three years.