Joseph J. Donnelly
32776495, 766th Squadron
Navigator to Gunner
In 1942 I was a student at the State Teachers College in Trenton studying Industrial Arts. Shortly I expected to be drafted where I would be placed in either the Army or Navy. The Air Force at that time was part of the Army. Several choices could be made: enlist in the Army or Navy, wait to be drafted, or enroll in an Army officer training program. Just about all of the students chose the officer training program as it enabled than to continue studying safely in college. I had taken several math courses, mechanical drawing, and I did exceptionally well in a course in aerial navigation. So I figured why not enlist in the army and be a navigator in an airplane. Piloting the plane did not particularly interest me and I was sure to make it as a navigator. However things turned out otherwise. I failed to pass the eye test part of the physical. This consisted of lining up two balls about 20 feet away by pulling on two strings attached to each. I wasn’t able to do this. Figuring sooner or later by luck I would be able to, I retook the test several times but continued to fail. I was disappointed and angry and so decided to simply wait and be dratted.
A few months later I was. The Air Force at this time had been separated from the Army, it was now the Army, Navy and Air Force and was in need of personnel. With my previous interest in flying I was a logical choice so was transferred. The Air Force in its ‘wisdom’ could not see me as a navigator due to my previous failure to pass the eye exam but figured I would make a good gunner on a bomber! I couldn’t see to read maps two feet in front of me but good enough to shoot at enemy airplanes several thousand yards away!
I was inducted into the Army in Fort Dix, N.J. in March of 1943 and was transferred as stated above to the Air Corps. From there we were railroaded (literally) all the way to Florida by train with cars equipped with wooden seats. In those days local commuter trains traveling short distances had simple wooden seats. In wartime everything was put into service. With necessary stops for whatever reason it took several days to get to Florida and coming from the north we were all wearing winter clothing.
We were put up in hotels near the beach. The one I was put up in was once called the Madrid. All the hotels in Miami were taken over by the Army, after first having been stripped of valuables, paintings, carpets, sofas, any luxuries. But it was a good life, far better than Army barracks or tents. We drilled on the beach in shorts and afterwards swam and cooled off in the ocean. Ironically at night we were often assigned guard duty walking in the alley or in front of a beautiful hotel. All in all, not too bad a life. We wished we could stay there.
The next assignment was further training in aircraft maintenance in Biloxi, Mississippi, a new camp. This was hell on earth compared to Miami. The weather was sticky and anyone not use to it got prickly heat. I did and I think it took me several years getting over it. Thousands of us drilled on open fields and afterward you might find two showers available. Oh, how we missed Miami.
First Time Up
From the hellhole of Biloxi we went to Laredo, Texas for gunnery training. Here was my first experience flying. We took off in a 2-seater bi-plane, the pilot in the front seat, me in the back with a mounted machine gun. The pilot would fly some distance away from another plane towing a target. I would stand up and fire at the target. If you didn’t hit the target the pilot would move in closer and closer until you did. Failure to hit the target was not an option. No one failed! No way out. You were going.
Laredo was a border town. Across the Rio Grande River was Nuevo Laredo. Like most border towns the low life of every country seems to drift to these places. No exception here. I spent one day there and that was enough.
Salt Lake City, Utah
After Laredo I rode in a troop train to Salt Lake City where I would await further orders. Here I was told to go find a barracks to sleep in (there were 40 or 50 empty ones) and check in every day to see if your name was listed. In the meantime you could expect to be given light duties around the field cleaning up debris, KP duty, guard duty, whatever could be thought up to keep you busy. The Army has a thing about idleness. Idle hands worship the devil or something. A non-com would appear each morning handing out assignments. I selected one of the 50 or so barracks furthest away and least conspicuous and hid out there for about a month and rarely showed myself except to check on the bulletin board for my name. Eventually it came up and I was to go to Peterson Field in Colorado and meet up with the rest of the crew.
Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs
Peterson Field was near Colorado Springs and about 14 miles from Pikes Peak. I believe that is the tallest mountain in the west. Our crew met each other and our training began. We were very careful to avoid Pikes Peak when flying. Some of our planes were said not to have made it over the top or around it.
Two of the nicest cities were nearby, Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. One day when off duty I visited Colorado Springs. I walked through the lobby of the nicest hotel there: the Broadmoor. I noticed a meeting going on and stood awhile looking in. It was a meeting of the local Rotary Club (I remembered Rotary Club meetings from my stint as a bellhop at the Roger Smith Hotel in New Brunswick). Everything looked so nice and peaceful, so far removed from the war. I said to myself someday I would like to come hack here, be a Rotarian, and attend one of their meetings.
A little over 50 years later traveling through Colorado Springs I came upon this magnificent hotel, the Broadmoor, only this time it was much bigger with two (not one, but two!) beautiful golf courses. For the heck of it I parked the car, went in, and inquired as to what day the Rotary Club met. “The ‘what’?” was the answer. “The Rotary Club,” I answered, “a service club.” “Never heard of it!” A dream turned sour.
Flying the B-24
Our crew training at Peterson Field consisted of a number of things in addition to not flying into Pikes Peak. Our pilot and co-pilot would practice many landings and takeoffs, our navigator finding his way around different states, our bombardier working on the bomb sight over targets*, our gunners working in their positions, our engineer (me) transferring gas from outer wing tanks to inner ones, and other minor procedure. One of these was to fly the plane (or pretend to) in an emergency. Once it was announced over the intercom that I would be flying the plane. So I sat in the pilot’s seat and made the most perfect maneuvers, rolls to the left, to the right, figure 8s, complete 360 degree turns, even practice landings on clouds dropping the wheels-----it was flawless, never losing any altitude during the turns, smooth as can be. Much better than the pilot or co-pilot could do. Crew members were tremendously impressed! Unbeknownst to them, 1 was doing all this using the auto pilot (simply pressing buttons, turning switches, like cruise control in an automobile). I never let on.
*With all due respect to our bombardier he had the softest job in all creation. Unless he became the lead bombardier in the formation he had just two things to do during the whole flight:
- Remove the pins from the bombs a few minutes before we got to the target
- Look out the window at the lead plane and when you saw his bombs drop with your finger move a toggle switch a 1/4 or an inch and yours would drop. Then he could find a cozy spot and go back to sleep.
The B-24 is designed for high altitude bombing, not strafing enemy troops or planes on the ground. However this was known to occur so we had to practice this. Our pilot would drop down to several hundred feet (maybe even fifty) off the ground and we would fire at decoy planes, hangers, whatever. The whatever one time became stray cows wandering about I am sure we never hit any, but if we did the rancher could collect damages by showing the riddled remains. It was exciting flying that low and shooting up the ground.
Although we did all of our bombing by day we still had to practice some at night. The British were a little smarter than we were - they did all of their bombing at night when it was much safer. So for several nights we flew high in the sky over western states. Unlike in the eastern more populated states it would be pitch black, especially over desert land in Colorado. One of our flights was to take us over the city of Denver and when we got there it was like seeing a blaze of lights suddenly show up, a jewel in the desert.
After passing over we mischievously turned around, dropped down low over the main streets, and buzzed them. That would be reported, of course not by us, but no way could we be identified as the culprits since there were so many planes in the area.
To join our group overseas we were given a brand new B-24 Liberator bomber and were to fly from Peterson Field in Colorado Springs to Maine, Newfoundland, the Azores, North Africa, and finally to Italy and the Fifteenth Air Force. While flying over upstate New York the tail gunner told me, as the engineer/gunner somewhat responsible, that he smelled gasoline. I quickly noted the same as did other crewmembers and then I immediately told the pilot. He confirmed it and headed for the nearest airfield to land. We landed safely and the plane was inspected. Nothing was found to be wrong but it was too late to continue on our way so we were given an overnight pass. By ‘coincidence’ we were not far from the tail gunner’s home and so were driven to his house for a nice dinner and evening of relaxation. We had a wonderful time and the next day resumed our journey.
Fifty-some years later at one of our Air Force reunions we were having dinner when the tail gunner confessed to all of us that he had secretly brought a vial of gas on board the plane and spread it around when he knew he was flying near his home. He had kept this secret all these years!
We’ll never know why, maybe he was waiting for the statute of limitations to run out! We never laughed so hard.
As we neared Newfoundland and prepared to land we developed a problem. Our landing gear worked fine but the nose wheel did not come down. The doors to the wheel were open, but the wheel just laid there. It was up to me to do something about it. So I laid down behind the wheel and with both feet in front of me was able to raise the wheel high enough and forward enough till it flopped downward into place. Only one problem: the light on the pilot’s instrument panel telling us it was locked in place was not lit. From inside the plane we had no way of seeing if it was. The pilot talking to the control tower was told to fly around for a couple of hours using up as much gasoline as possible. This we did. By this time word on the ground had spread around concerning our plight and possible crackup so that hundreds of people lined the runway in anticipation. Also just off the runway was an array of ambulances, fire trucks and rescue personnel.
We made our approach, carefully landing on the two wheels under the wings, the fire trucks, ambulances, and rescue crews screaming down the runway right behind us, our pilot holding the nose wheel aloft until the very last second before touching it down as gently as possible. Nothing happened, the wheel held up, a perfect landing. You could imagine the disappointment on the faces of all of the onlookers!
Flying Tail Heavy
In Newfoundland we took off around midnight on the longest part of our journey. We were to fly southeast to the Azores, locating the islands in broad daylight. However we continued to experience the plane flying tail heavy using up a lot of extra fuel. We moved everything including ourselves as far forward as possible. The pilot tried everything he could, but it still didn’t fly right. I transferred all the fuel from the extra spare tanks, but by morning we were running very low. Fortunately our navigator was a very good one and he had no trouble finding the islands. Still I don’t think we had more than 10 minutes of flying time left.
The next part of the trip to North Africa was a relatively short one so we had nothing to worry about. We landed without incident, the pilot reporting our problem. Inspectors and engineers flew the plane, but could not find out what the problem was. One theory was that the entire tail assembly had the wrong oversized rivets installed. This is somewhat plausible inasmuch as the B-24 has two huge rudders with literally thousands of rivets (After the war I wrote to Colonel Lindbergh who did engineering work for the Consolidated Aircraft company that made the B-24s, asking if this was possible. He never answered the letter, which I understand he made a habit of doing if he did not know you.). Not being able to ascertain the reason for the tail heaviness the decision was made to cannibalize the plane stripping it of usable parts and junking the rest.
While in North Africa we met up with an Arab who had a fist full of money and was in the business of buying or selling anything. We considered selling him a mattress cover we had which he would have given $20 for to be resold and made into a dress. Instead, we laughingly suggested he buy our Bulova wristwatch (GI issue to airmen) which he looked at and promptly sneered in broken English, “B-u-l-o-v-a watch no f--- g-o-o-d.” Apparently he had been stuck with one that someone had left on while taking a shower.
After a few days we were given a B-25 (a smaller 2-engine bomber) to continue our flight to Italy. On the way we stopped overnight in Tunis. Walking around, I saw an Arab sleeping on the sidewalk with his mouth open and flies going in and out. Welcome to Africa. Next we flew to Sicily, stayed overnight, and finally completed our journey joining up with the 766th Bomb Squadron, 461st Bomb Group, Fifteenth Air Force in Cerignola, Italy.
Our co-pilot patterned himself as someone out of a “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip (this was a famous cartoon depicting a gung-ho fearless pilot who could fly anything, do anything, accomplish miracles, a real heroic character who dressed the part). He wore his hat cocked to one side like his hero. Often showed up to fly after a night of drinking and carrying on. Fearlessly flew the plane like it was a small pursuit plane, one which he was more than capable of handling. He was reported to have been tossed out of fighter training for recklessness. Being reduced to flying as co-pilot on a bomber was beneath his dignity, somewhat of a disgrace, but he would put up with it and show all of us what a great man he was. Our pilot, a straight-laced, conservative, responsible individual I am sure, did not appreciate his personality or lack of dedication to the job at hand.
Our first mission to Weiner-Neudorf, Austria was a fairly tough one, flak heavy intense barrage type, we encountered enemy fighters. One B-24 turned to go back (engine trouble) and was immediately shot down. It was our co-pilot’s first and last mission. His true colors came out and he refused to fly anymore. But he was an officer and it couldn’t be admitted that an officer could be yellow, so he was sent back to the States and rumor had it he was given the job of ferrying bombers and supplies from Florida to North Africa. If he were a simple GI like the rest of us, he would have been shot or at least sent to prison for a long time. If this is true, this transfer must have proven lucrative to him in many ways since along with government supplies you could carry dozens of Parker 51 pens selling for $50 on the black market along with other items. It was also beneficial to us, as it turned out we then got a highly competent co-pilot built with the same good character and expertise as our pilot.
I could never get over being airsick, back in the States as well as on missions. Typically our bombers would take off on a mission and for the first hour or so would circle in formation until all the planes (some five or six hundred or more) were in the air and ready to head in the direction of the target. You could almost set your clock by it, one hour in the air and I was as sick as a dog, throwing up in an ammunition box, which was then thrown overboard. Fortunately all this took place over friendly territory, so we were not in any immediate danger from enemy airplanes. I am sure if my condition had been reported back in the States or overseas would have resulted in my being grounded and I probably would have ended up with a nice safe airplane mechanic job. But being idealistic (dumb) I never reported it and fellow crew members knew I was always okay by the time we got anywhere near enemy territory and never said anything to anyone. There was one time however when my time to be sick was off. We were over enemy territory, I was not only sick to my stomach this time but had diarrhea as well. We were over 20,000 feet with oxygen masks on. I stooped in the catwalk with opened bomb bay doors, dropped my pants, took off my oxygen mask, held on with one arm, the other holding my pants and proceeded to empty out of both ends, stopping only long enough to take in whiffs of oxygen. I felt sorry for those on the ground!
The night before a mission was to take place someone or all of the crew would go to the main quarters to check to see if a mission was planned and if their crew was scheduled. The destination was usually never announced till the next morning for security reasons. If you weren’t scheduled, it was a relief, it meant you had the day off, you could go into town, relax, enjoy yourself, alive for another day. If the weather reports were bad, that was a good indication you wouldn’t be flying. Clouds often times caused missions to be cancelled. You could bomb through clouds but the accuracy was not as good. When flying we loved clouds. If enemy fighters were seen, you could hide in them. They rarely came in looking for you for fear of crashing. When you came out of the clouds, you quickly looked for others to go back into. To this day I have had a love affair whenever seeing plentiful and beautiful clouds.
Not having to fly a mission was a mixed blessing; on the one hand it meant no harm would come to you, while on the other hand it meant you would be over there longer waiting to complete your quota of missions.
If you were scheduled to fly the next day you went to bed early because you would be awakened around 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to get ready. You had breakfast (all but myself since I wouldn’t be keeping it down long) then went to the briefing room where you were shown on a map the target where the mission was to go, how long it would take, what you might expect with enemy fighters, how many flak guns were reported to be there, weather conditions, and whatever else seemed important. Then before being driven out to your airplane you picked up your flak suit, a vest of armor that would offer some protection. I would always pick up two flak suits. I would wear one, the other I would place on top of an empty ammunition box and sit on it during the mission. I was always concerned about protecting the ‘family jewels’.
Another habit was to wear not just an electrically heated flying suit but over it a bulky heavy woolen regulation sheepskin one. You never knew when the electricity would break down, be shot out, or a short develop in the suit, and standing or sitting by an open waist window at close to 30,000 feet, 30 degrees below zero, it could get pretty chilly. I also made it a habit to pack two parachutes: one I kept on my track and a smaller reserve one nearby that I could quickly grab on my way out the window and attach to the front of my chest. One of the chutes could get damaged, catch on fire, or just not open. And a second one didn’t cost anything.
If we weren’t flying that day we would still be awakened early in the morning as our tents were located just past the runway and we would hear the constant roar of the bombers as they flew overhead. Hopefully they would all keep flying overhead! Once they were gone we could roll over and go back to sleep, hoping and praying our buddies would all return.
Upon returning from a mission you would turn in flak suits and parachutes and go to be debriefed. This meant telling anything you saw of importance, i.e., number of enemy planes you encountered, any you shot at, hit, shot down, what bombers you saw go down, anyone seen getting out safely (parachutes open), damage you observed from your bombing. Usually the bombs you saw exploding were those dropped by the planes ahead of you. You would be miles ahead before yours landed and exploded (except for the tail gunner - he could see what ours did).
If some crews did not return, we turned into cannibals. We ran to their tent to be the first to ransack it of any goodies. But it was all right, it was understood, we were expected to do it. It would be done to us if we didn’t make it back. We never touched anything personal, something that could be sent home. But extra warm clothing, blankets, gas or oil to heat with, bedding, lighting, food, it was open season on.
We had very little inspection overseas. That was something they did back in the States where they had nothing better to do. Seldom was a salute expected or wanted. But every so often a gung-ho officer would think it necessary or according to the book was supposed to be done. In this case we lined up in front of our tent, stood at attention while the inspecting team looked us over and we watched them go in our tent searching for whatever. Two tricks - one nasty, one not – soon after my induction in the army I secured a pair of shoes that were regulation Army issue. They were constructed inside out or something. Whatever it was they were not to be polished. They couldn’t be. Everyone else had to have theirs polished. I don’t know how I ever got them. I cherished these all through my Army career. They were worth millions to me. So it was perfectly legal for me to stand inspection without ever having to worry about polished shoes.
The other trick was a little nasty. On a path leading into our tent we constructed an overhead heavy aluminum roof with a rather sharp edge. Before an inspection we would lower the front sharp edge of the roof a few inches and raise the steps. We then posted a prominent sign: “Watch your Step.”
Then we would try to hold back our laughter as the inspecting officers looking down at their feet invariably banged their heads. What could they say, they had been warned. As I said, we never had too many inspections.
On my 18th mission to Vienna, Austria, we had real experience with enemy fighters. Fifty to seventy-five mostly ME-109s hit our group. Three flew right of our plane at 9 o’clock (think of a horizontal clock with the pilot at 12 the right waist gunner at 3, the tail gunner at 6 and me at 9) just out of range. They stayed there awhile just watching us. Knowing that each fifth bullet in my 50-caliber waist gun was a tracer, I proceeded to fire on them—the bullets of course falling way short, but their tracks clearly visible. Several crew members seeing their inactivity (and hoping for the best) were aware of my firing and made comments to the effect that I should stop, “why p-- them oft”, “maybe they’ll leave us alone”, etc. Nevertheless, I continued firing even though I knew there was no chance of hitting them. My thinking was that these men are all professionals, they don’t want to die any more than we do, they are looking us over to see how tight our formation is (the tighter it is, the more concentrated our fire power is, and the more likely they’ll get hit), and to try to find out if our guns were working, not frozen as often was the case at -30 degrees F. I obliged them by letting them know at least mine was and probably all the others. They could see that we had a tight formation and were experienced crews.
It worked, as they soon moved up ahead, looked over the next group and determined they were easier targets. They made one pass and shot down three bombers and then continued moving on up to the next group following the same procedure.
Now, the $64,000 question that can’t be answered: If I did not fire at them and even though we had a tight formation and their decision was to attack us maybe we would have shot down one, two or three of them sparing the group ahead of us.
However it may have been we were hit a little later by other fighters. Our tail gunner, left waist (mine), nose, and ball turret were all busy firing this time but didn’t hit anything.
The next day we flew again to Vienna and this time we were hit with 125-150 enemy planes. And all this happened a few days after reading in the "Stars and Stripes" (Army newspaper) that the Luftwaffe was running out of gasoline and no longer need to be feared.
Two thoughts occurred while flying over the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. No matter where you looked below you would see nothing but beautiful white clouds, heavenly beautiful clouds. Then all of a sudden reality would set in and a huge solid rock of a mountain peak could be seen rising above them. Hope we don’t have engine trouble.
Then the second thought would come. Why can’t we just have enough engine trouble to ‘force’ us to take a left turn, fly and land safely in Switzerland? There we would be interned for the duration of the war, continue to collect our paycheck, free to go anywhere in the country, ski, camp, go to college, no one shooting at us, safe to enjoy the good life
This was something new, a cargo carrying mission. General Patton’s troops were near Lyon, France and were short of gasoline and ammo. Instead of bombs we were outfitted with tanks of gasoline and supplies of ammunition. In landing our nose wheel blew out, but we managed to land safely and were able somehow to secure another tire for our return trip. Frenchmen had lined the runways cheering us as we landed--it felt good being welcomed for a change.
While waiting for our turn to take off, we saw a P-47 go down the runway and hit one of our B-24s idling near the edge, shearing off the left wing of the bomber and then crashing . You never know.
Isle of Capri
Twas on the Isle of Capri that I met her" as the song goes (only I met my wife in school in the 9th grade).
Half way through our missions it was customary to take a break, you were entitled to go to some kind of a rest home for two weeks. We chose the beautiful Isle of Capri and it certainly lived up to its reputation. However it nearly cost me my life!
I rented a kayak and paddled about two miles off shore having a great time till the kayak tipped over. I righted it without too much trouble only to have it happen again and again. This kept up. It had sprung a leak with the water inside going from one side to the other. I knew I could never make it back paddling and constantly tipping over and swimming back alone was out of the question. I doubt I could swim more than a 100 or 200 yards (at that time I hadn’t developed my famous floating on my back technique). So, what to do? I got out of the kayak, held on to it with one arm and doggie paddled back with the other arm till I reached shore some 2 miles away and hours later. But the ordeal was still not over. As I reached shore walking near the water’s edge, I stepped on some kind of porcupine type of flower filled with splinters that ended up in the sole of my foot. I then had to hobble painfully another mile or two to a first-aid station where about 50 splinters had to be taken out one by one. For the remainder of the "rest camp" I walked around with one hurt foot heavily bandaged. It was a relief to get back flying.
P.S. For this two week stay your mother/grandmother was worried sick. She had no idea where I was. From the time I entered service we wrote to each other daily and during this two week "vacation" she didn’t get a single letter and feared the worst.
Our 13th raid (and don’t think we weren’t aware of that number) we were ordered to bomb the oil fields at Ploesti. Ploesti was the most heavily defended target in all of Europe surpassing all the flak guns at Berlin. The sky was literally filled with black puffs of deadly flak. Nothing need be aimed at you, just thrown up at your altitude and chances are you would run into it. We received numerous hits but none fatal. Our bombs did not release properly when they should have and crashed through our unopened bomb bay doors, fortunately without going off.
On the way back, the plane beside us had one engine out and another looked like it was about to go. The crew could be seen throwing everything overboard, ammunition, guns, clothing, flak suits, putt-putt, radio equipment, anything they could find in order to lighten the plane. They returned safely on 3 engines.
Rookie Enemy Pilots
On returning from a mission to Vienna, our squadron became separated and we were with only four planes to fly back with. Just as we passed over the Hungarian-Yugoslavian border, we were attacked by 15 ME-109s and 4 ME-110s. They made 4 separate passes at us and didn’t hit a thing. Our top turret gunner damaged one, our tail gunner another, along with a probable kill. We lost no planes.
It is quite obvious that these were rookie flyers, probably the first time in combat. We were damn lucky.
Speaking of Pilots
Neither P-51 Mustangs nor P-38 Lightnings could follow us on very long missions. They would go as far as they could and then turn back. Naturally we hated to see them leave. They also had their own way of defending us and I can’t honestly say which was the best. The P-38s would fly overhead with their twin booms easily identifiable. It was a welcome sight to see them. Whenever enemy planes attacked from below they often had the advantage of diving down on them. We saw what they did to help us. On the other hand the P-51 strategy was to seek out the enemy at their airfield and attack them before they got off the ground. And, of course, we did not always see what they did. Sometimes they joined us. We had to be careful when they did not to mistake them for FW-190s (the enemy) and shoot at them. They took no chances and stayed very high above when we were being attacked.
Racial discrimination was rampant during the war. In the Navy blacks were used mostly as cooks and chiefs, servants so to speak. In the Army a typical job was to drive a truck. In the Air Corps for a long time none were allowed to fly. I knew of none in flight crews. At one point during the war the barrier was lifted to a degree. A separate squadron of P-51 pilots was organized and trained consisting of all black men. It was assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force and saw action in Italy. Indeed it did. It boosted of having the most perfect record defending bombers against enemy fighters. It lost not a one! When we heard they would be joining us on a mission we were delighted.
Fifty missions ** (your quota) were over and I was on my way home. Unlike when flying over, we were scheduled to go back by boat via the port of Naples. While in camp there waiting for our boat, groups of USO performers would often entertain in the evening. It became the habit before going to the entertainment to pick up handfuls of condoms in the duty office and as you sat in the bleachers you would blow up the condoms like balloons and sail them over the ball field, thousands of them, while the entertainers entertained, or tried to. Imagine trying to sing or tell jokes and looking out over that vast arena and seeing this. What a sight to set thousands of balloons floating down from the stands. Variations were introduced such as first filling the condoms with torn up paper. While they floated down within reach of soldiers who would then touch the balloons with lighted cigarettes and you would then see confetti falling like snow and the ‘balloons’ popping. Some ingenious soldiers while stuffing the confetti in would empty their fountain pens filled with ink. I can’t imagine what the actors, actresses, singers, musicians must have been thinking.
One evening while there everything I left in the tent in my duffel bag was stolen including all my letters from Jean, the souvenirs I collected, whatever I was able to ‘liberate’, everything. It was all gone. I was left with just the clothes on my back for the next 21 days it took to get to Fort Dix, NJ.
The trip back was a nightmare. Once on the liberty Ship or whatever kind it was from dusk to dawn we were locked six floors below deck so as not to allow any light outside for the enemy submarines to see. The first thing I did once we were allowed on deck in the morning was to go to the center of the ship and stay there all day. The center was the calmest part of the ship, the best for my stomach. The Captain’s orders were to sail for two minutes in the general direction of NYC, then go two minutes at right angles, followed by two minutes in the other direction (the purpose being to prevent an enemy submarine from lining up the ship and firing a torpedo). This zigzagging all the way across the Atlantic took a lot of time and made for a very rough voyage. I ate little and showered none.
Seeing the Statute of Liberty in the New York Harbor I knew what immigrants felt when they first came to America.
** The history of why 50 missions is an interesting one. The early daylight bombing missions over Germany resulted in a casualty rate of 10 %. This meant in 10 missions you no longer had an air force so something had to be done. It was. Fighter escorts were designed to fly with the bombers as far as they could, resulting in fewer bombers being shot down by enemy planes (little could be done about flak except to drop Xmas tree tinsel to throw off the gunners). This brought the percentage of losses down to a more ‘respectable’ 4%. So the powers that be decreed that if you were able to survive 25 missions you deserved to go home. Later losses were reduced to 3% so the quota was raised from 25 to 30, and when it went down still further to 35 missions, till finally it got down as low as 2% hence the 50 mission figure. 50 times 2 meant 100% chance you weren’t coming back----if you did, go home and thanks!
When It Paid to Lie
After returning to the states I was sent to a camp about 75 miles south of Chicago to await reassignment. They could not send us back overseas: no reason to, there were more than enough flyers both in Europe and in the Pacific. Neither could we be released. That would not have been fair to others still in service. So we waited around, waited and waited. The Army has a thing about idle soldiers so makeshift work was in order. I was put on a useless detail picking up paper, cigarette butts, things like that. I didn’t mind this so much, but I resented being ordered about by a T/Sgt., the same rank I had who had never gone overseas, never saw combat, had a plush safe job in this camp. He wore his stripes like a badge of honor. I wore none and made no pretense of having any rank of any sort. He insisted on ‘marching’ us back from our work detail. I told him in no uncertain terms where he could head in, what he could do with those stripes. I fully expected a man-to-man fist fight and was prepared. Instead, the next day I found myself in front of the Commanding Officer accused by this guy of disobeying orders, cursing him, etc. All of which was true.
Fully aware of what this was all about, I lied, and lied and lied for over an hour while standing at attention. This camp was filled with returning combat veterans loaded down with rank like myself. None of the local soldiers assigned here would be eligible for advanced rank since we had so much. The CO could not play favorites with anyone and the only way open to him was to ‘bust’ some of us returnees to private. Since there was no proof of my disobeying orders (none of the other combat veterans witnessing our confrontation would say a word) and we both had the same rank it would be foolish of him to have Court Marshall proceedings started, so his best bet was to get me to ‘confess’. So I did not. Finally the CO gave up, the ordeal was over, and I retained my rank and pay. Pay was the only thing I cared about, rank meant nothing. I just wished I could have met that guy outside!
I did get a sort of an apology from him before I left that camp. He said he didn’t know I was a T/Sgt. My feeling was all of us returnees were combat veterans and we didn’t need any chicken s— from a guy safely tucked away at home regardless of whether we had rank or not.
I had hoped to keep my flying status as a helicopter pilot but apparently there was no need for more. Since my record showed I had been studying to be a teacher before being drafted, my next assignment was to an Army school teaching recruits basic electricity. This was a nice, easy, safe job and I enjoyed it. But a funny thing happened and it turned out not to be the safest. One very hot day I stood next to a plastic see-through 12 volt battery, a visual aid, that we used to demonstrate how a battery worked. You could see the cells and the acid inside bubbling. Everything went well, students took lots of notes and I was pleased. We took a break and left the room to go outside. While we were gone we heard an explosion and running back inside. We saw the remains of the battery, acid all over the place, notebooks ruined. Five minutes earlier we would have been splattered with acid and hurt. And I thought the war for me was over.
When the war finally ended in Japan, soldiers and sailors were released according to how many points they had accumulated, so many for your length of service, time overseas in combat, medals and citations you were awarded, prisoner of war, missions you were on, etc. I forget how many I had, but enough to be one of the earliest to get out in September 1945. When leaving, I felt just like someone must feel getting out of prison, no different. In the Army you could not come and go as you pleased, you were confined to a campsite. If you were an enlisted man, as most were, it was much worse. Officers were considered ‘gentlemen’ and were treated differently. For instance you read about blacks once having separate toilet facilities, drinking fountains, separate eating and living quarters, special places to sit in theatres. Officers were assigned choice seats in the middle center isle. If the theatre was filled with the exception of those seats assigned to officers and GIs were waiting outside to get in, tough, those seats remained empty. I know exactly how blacks must have felt in those segregation days. I felt the same way. We had all that.
We had to treat officers like they were some kind of a god, stand up in their presence, salute them respectfully, ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ them.* I know this is all part of discipline, tradition and all that stuff, but it is still BS. I hated the Army and still do. But at the time it was necessary and the right place to be.
Officers could write home and not have their mail read/censored, they could be trusted. Enlisted men apparently could not be. Our letters had to be read by an officer, then sealed and his initials placed on the envelope.
* I did enjoy an unwritten understanding with my pilot (Captain). He knew how I felt toward officers, nothing personal, just the title and rules and so never once did I salute him or was expected to, either in the states or overseas, nor any of that ‘yes sir’/‘no sir’ crap. As to my letters home or to my future wife the envelope was sealed first and then he signed it. I had the highest respect for him as a pilot and he for me as the engineer/gunner. And this went for the other three officers on our crew as well. We were all in this together. Our entire crew was one and the same, all good competent and trustworthy. All dedicated to the job they had to do.
|Lt. Jehli, Arthur||Pilot||Bombing Missions|
|Lt. Thomson, Eugene||Co-pilot||Arrived: July 14, 1944|
|Lt. Vock, Gustav||Bombardier||Ceringnola, Italy|
|Lt. Leewright, William||Navigator|
|T/Sgt. Donnelly, Joseph||Engineer/gunner||766th Bomb Squadron|
|T/Sgt. Wood, Ernest||Radio Operator/gunner||461st Bomb Group|
|S/Sgt. Battaglia, Russel||Ball turret gunner||15th Air Force|
|S/Sgt. Stone, Lester||Top turret gunner|
|S/Sgt. Cunnyngham, Earl||Nose turret gunner|
|S/Sgt. Burgio, Joseph||Tail turret gunner|
First mission #63 occurred just 2 days after we arrived. It was a long hard one and we were credited with 2 missions.
#63 July 16, 1944 Weiner Neudorf, Austria
Saw enemy fighters but our P-38s prevented them from attacking. One B-24 in our group turned back with engine trouble near target and was immediately shot down by ME-109s. Our bomb bay doors would not open on the bomb run. The navigator kicked doors open and was off oxygen and interphone for some time. The crew thought he was hit or fell thru the open bomb bay doors. The flak was heavy, intense, barrage type.
#66 July 21, 1944 Brux, Czechoslovakia
This was a long mission through fighter territory but we encountered no enemy aircraft. Flak over the target was heavy, intense barrage type.
#68 July 24, 1944 Pljewlja, Yugoslavia
Lt. Vock, our bombardier, was taken off the crew and navigator toggled bombs on this mission. We made a total of four bomb runs on the primary and alternate targets and finally hit the primary target. There was no flak or fighter on this mission - a piece of cake.
#69 July 25, 1944 Linz, Austria
We developed serious engine trouble ½ hour from the target and started dropping behind the formation. The navigator was again bombardier and salvoed the bombs in Austria. We tried to catch the formation but to no avail so we turned back alone in enemy fighter territory. Jehli tried to get a P-38 escort back but no luck. We had to feather #3 engine on the way home—later over the field #2 went out but we were able to restart #3. The pilot gave orders to "bail out" if we ran into enemy fighters as our nose turret, ball turret and one waist gun were inoperative. We got home safely and were credited with one mission.
The lead plane in our formation blew up over target and we lost our CO, Major Burke, and the rest of the entire crew. Out of our group today 19 planes went over the target, 12 were shot down by enemy fighters, 1 crashed on the way home and one crew in our squadron bailed out over the field. Enemy fighters had hit the group just 10 minutes after we turned back. Just five of us returned safely, 6 counting those who bailed out.
#70 July 27, 1944 Pec, Yugoslavia
Wood and I flew as engineer and radio operator in lead ship with Major Ward. We destroyed 17 aircraft on ground. We carried frags.
#71 July 28, 1944 Phlorina, Greece
We encountered only slight flak on this target, medium aimed type, not very accurate.
#72 July 30, 1944 Budapest, Hungary
Developed serious engine trouble just before arriving at the IP and dropped behind and underneath the formation on the bomb run. Stockier, a bombardier on his first mission, salvoed the bombs, but still couldn’t catch up. All of the flak was below the formation just at our level. The flak was heavy, intense, accurate and aimed. The new bombardier was standing up looking out the window ‘enjoying’ his first view of flak—the navigator was crawled up underneath the table covering himself with flak suits. Looking up he noticed the bombardier and motioned him down beside him. A second after he stooped down a piece of flak went through the navigation compartment just where his head had been.
#74 August 2, 1944 Avignon, France
This was a long cold mission. We hit a railroad bridge very successfully. Heavy intense barrage type flak met us over the target.
#75 August 3, 1944 Friederickshafen, Germany
Encountered moderate heavy flak over the target. Had engine trouble on the trip home but got back to base all right.
#76 August 6, 1944 Miramas, France
We hit heavy intense and accurate flag at the target. We bombed a railroad bridge. We had engine trouble on the way back and ran short on oil and gas. We made an emergency landing at Corsica. Our crew spent the night on the Island and the following day enjoying ourselves swimming in a cool mountain pool. Toward the end of the day we flew back to our base.
#80 August 12, 1944 Northern Italy
We encountered only moderate flak at this target, however the B-24 beside us received a direct hit in the bomb bay and blew up. All that was seen was a puff of flame and the B-24 disappeared. No one had a chance to get out. Another B-24 had engine trouble and the crew had to bail out over enemy territory. And this we thought would be a milk run!
#82 August 14, 1944 Near San Raphael Harbor, Southern France
We were bombing gun installations in preparation for the invasion of Southern France which came about the following day. A B-24 in front of us with 8-500 lb bombs blew up for reasons undetermined. We encountered little flak.
#84 August 17, 1944 Ploesti Oil Fields, Romania
Ploesti oil fields are the most heavily defended target the allied Air Forces have ever had to hit. There were more flak guns than at all of Berlin. Our bombs didn’t release properly and dropped through the bomb bay doors. We took violent evasive action to avoid flak bursts, sky was completely filled with black puffs of smoke all around us and at all levels. We received numerous holes in our plane but no one was hurt. We saw 6 planes with feathered engines on the way back. Plane beside us had 3 engines acting up and another one going out so they were seen throwing everything overboard, guns, ammunition, radio equipment, putt-putt, flak suits and some of their clothing in order to lighten plane. They returned safely.
#86 August 20, 1944 Szolnok Airfield near Budapest, Hungary
The flak at this target is plenty rough. It is called ‘flak alley’. We went through heavy intense barrage type flak, however we received only a few holes in the plane.
#87 August 22, 1944 Lobau near Vienna, Austria
This was the first time we had real experience with enemy fighters. Fifty to seventy-five enemy fighters mostly ME-109s hit us a half hour before we got to the target. They made a pass at the group ahead of us and shot down six B-24s. Some were burning—saw a lot of parachutes. Six bailed out of one plane near us and all chutes burst into flames upon opening leaving just the shroud cords dangling in the air. All of our guns were busy firing. Right nose gun jammed and the navigator transferred ammo from right to left gun just in time. We had no bombardier so navigator was kept pretty busy. The toggle switch didn’t work so the bombs were salvoed. The flak was intense and heavy but we were so busy with fighters we hardly notice.
#88 August 23, 1944 Markersdorf Airdrome near Vienna, Austria
We were expecting enemy fighter again today and were not disappointed. About 15 minutes from the target 125-150 enemy fighters hit us. They stayed with us till we left the target. The group behind us lost ten B-24s. Our tail gunner Burgio shot down one ME-109. We saw dog fights between our P-38s and ME-109s. We lost one plane from our squadron, it could not keep up with our formation and enemy fighters pounced on it. The crew bailed out. Flak over the target was light but we hit a heavy flak area just off the target. This was our roughest mission so far.
#90 August 26, 1944 Airdrome Bucharest, Rumania
We were bombing this airdrome because the Germans were bombing the city of Bucharest from it. Rumania had just begun to fight the Germans. We were disappointed in the bombing PP as all our bombs hit in the woods just outside of the airfield, none touching the airport. However later we learned the woods contained a heavy troop concentration which was completely annihilated. The Germans to this day are wondering how we knew it was there. One plane in our squadron ran out of gas over Yugoslavia and the crew bailed out. Most of the crew through partisan help returned safely to our squadron. The co pilot, who had completed 49 missions did not as he broke his leg upon landing and had to be turned over to a German field hospital—rumors had it they amputated his leg. This was the remaining crew’s first mission. Their co-pilot Lt. Thomas was not flying that day. He later became our co-pilot.
#91 August 27, 1944 Railroad bridge, Northern Italy
We hit a railroad bridge with 500 lb bombs. Did a good job of bombing and did not run into any flak.
#92 August 28, 1944 Szolnok, Hungary
The target was a railroad bridge. We destroyed it with 1000 lb bombs. There was moderate flak over the target. Thomas flew his first mission with us.
#94 September 1, 1944 Railroad Bridge Ferraro, Northern Italy
This target was known to be defended by plenty of flak guns and very accurate gunners. We made two runs on the target due to an undercast. We missed the bridge. Flak was moderate.
#95 September 2, 1944 Mitrovica, Yugoslavia
This was a real ‘milk run’, no flak, no fighters, short mission.
#97 September 5, 1944 Sava, Yugoslavia
Made several runs over the target due to undercast. It was necessary to bring our bombs back to base. On the way back we had engine trouble and had to salvo our bombs ‘safe’ over Yugoslavia.
#98 September 6, 1944 Sava, Yugoslavia
We went back to the same target today and hit it successfully. Flak was slight.
Isle of Capri (rest camp, at last)
#105 September 22, 1944 Lyon, France
This was something new, a cargo carrying mission. We carried gasoline and ammo up to the front. We blew out a nose wheel when landing, however we were able to secure another one and took off again OK. Frenchmen lined the runways and cheered. It felt good being welcomed for a change.
#106 September 24, 1944 Athens, Greece
We bombed an airfield in this area. Flak was moderate. Covered the airfield thoroughly with our bomb pattern.
#108 October 4, 1944 Munich, Germany Marshalling Yard
Entire Air Force bombed this target today. Our group of 27 planes was hit the roughest by flak. The flak was by far the roughest we had ever seen. It was heavy, intense, accurate and made up of all types—white phosphorous, black and a red type which is the heaviest of all. Nine B-24s of our group were knocked down over the target—two were from our squadron of seven planes. One B-24 blew up just behind us and it felt as if we were hit. The freakish concussion blew our bomb bay doors open without tearing them off! Our hydraulic system was knocked out. On two occasions we almost collided with other B-24s over the target. We were pretty scared.
#112 October 10, 1944 Northern Italy Railroad Junction
Made two runs over target but undercast prevented bombing. Encountered moderate flak and returned bombs to base.
#113 October 11, 1944 Vienna, Austria oil refinery
We ran into very heavy weather and tried to go around it but with no success. Had to give up primary target and made two runs over an alternate target in Northern Italy but undercast prevented dropping the bombs. Ran into moderate flak, one hunk went through the radio department. We returned bombs to base.
#114 October 12, 1944 Bologna, Italy Stores Depot
This was a tactical mission in direct support of our ground forces who were starting an all out offensive on Bologna. The entire Air Force took part in it with over 1,000 fighters and bombers. This was the first mission in our new plane which was issued to us, #54, a good plane. Navigator was bombardier again. Flak was moderate, heavy barrage type. Did a good job destroying the target.
#115 October 13 1944 Vienna, Austria Marshalling Yard
This was an unlucky mission for some of us. Two B-24s in our formation collided in the rendezvous area. One broke in two and crashed—two were able to bail out, the other managed to return to field with #3 engine out. We made two runs on the target, 13 minute bomb run, clouds were at 13,000 feet, 13 missions to go, #13 for our co-pilot. Superstitious or not we really sweated this one out. Flak gunners had our altitude and heading on the 2nd bomb run---flak was extremely heavy and accurate. Piece of flak went thru our nose turret and broke oxygen regulator. Four B-24s went down over the target. One B-24 landed at base with one bomb hung up in the racks. Upon landing it fell out and blew tail off killing gunner and tossing plane upside down in front of tower—remaining crew were all injured.
#117 October. 16, 1944 Linz, Austria
We expected plenty of enemy fighters and flak on this mission but didn’t see any fighters. Flak was moderate and inaccurate. We encountered bad weather, rain and fog over the Alps. One B-24 in our squadron had a gas leak and had to bail out over Northern Italy.
#120 October. 23, 1944 Munich, Germany
We were after aircraft engine factories today. There was a complete undercast and overcast and we could not see the target and had to bomb by PFF (Pathfinder). This was a long mission of 8 hours and 20 minutes. Flak over target was intense and heavy but not too accurate. We had a bomb hung up in the racks and then after bomb bay closed it dropped through them.
#123 Nov. 1, 1944 Graz, Austria
Today we were after a target in the heart of Vienna. The weather was very bad and we were in the midst of a cirrus deck of clouds on the bomb run. We could barely see the other planes in our formation. Another group flew over the top of us with bomb bay doors open—that’s all brother! We peeled off and lost the rest of the formation. We dropped our bombs on the edge of town and came back alone. There were other stragglers like ourselves all over the sky. We hid in clouds as much as possible avoiding enemy fighters. All returned safely.
#126 Nov. 5, 1944 Vienna, Austria
The target was on the northern side of Vienna. Due to an undercast we had to bomb by pathfinder. Flak at the target was heavy, intense but inaccurate. Our squadron of four planes was separated and we came home alone. Just as we reached the Hungarian-Yugoslavian border we were attacked by 15 ME-109s and four ME-110s. They made four passes at our four planes. Stone, the top turret gunner, damaged one and Burgio in the tail got a probable and another damage. We lost none. The only explanation can be that these enemy pilots were rookies, probably their first time in combat.
#129 Nov. 6, 1944 Vienna, Austria
This time we hit factories in the southern part of the city. Flak was heavy, intense and accurate. All our planes came through safely, however our squadron did lose a co-pilot on another mission in Northern Italy. He was hit by flak.
#64 July 18, 1944 Freiderickahafen, Germany
We had engine trouble just before hitting land at the top of the Adriatic----two generators went out. We salvoed the bombs and returned to the base.
#79 August 10, 1944 Ploesti, Rumania
Encountered engine trouble, salvoed the bombs in the Adriatic and returned to base.
#83 August 15, 1944 San Raphael Harbor
In support of the invasion of Southern France we took off but had to feather #4 engine. We flew out over the Adriatic and dropped our bombs and then returned to base. We were going to take off again and catch the formation in another plane but the bombs had already been removed from it. We were disappointed at missing this mission.