Within these pages are recorded historical anecdotes of a personal nature. Personal, for they are subjective and were lived by former members of the 8th Air Force, circa 1942-1945. In most cases these will be first hand accounts taken from the pages of history during World War II. Some will be taken from those who are family members of the veteran; while others will be written by "buddies" of the person who lived the adventure.
As you read these accounts on 8th Air Force history written by others, you too may find have a story hidden away in your little gray cells; stories just waiting to be read by your contemporaries and those of another generation. So consider sending your tale of 8th Air Force life to this web site for possible inclusion. And keep the thought, that what you read here gives insight into another era of American History.
Edited by: Belton C. Wolf, 8th Air Force Historical Society. Flight Crew Member - B-17. Former member: 305th Bomb Group, 422nd Bomb Squadron, Chelveston; and, 406th Bomb Squadron, Cheddington, England. Home address: 4032 Twyla Lane Campbell, CA 95008.
MISSIONS & TARGETS - DAY OPERATIONS
GROUND CREW ACTIVITIES
PERSONAL VIEWS - GROUND & AIR
POW, ESCAPE & EVASION
STORIES OF THE EIGHTH AIR FORCE
Following submitted by: Heber Smith, Bombardier, B-17 aircraft, 94th Bomb Group, Bury St, Edmunds, England
Heber Smith flew 35 missions from May to October 1944.
Mission to Munich, July 1944
This was a very long and arduous mission to Munich, Germany as everyone who ever visited this target will remember, the anti aircraft fire was always very heavy. As we were going down the bomb run our # 2 engine was knocked out by flak, but we stayed up with the rest of the formation and dropped our bombs on target. As we were making a right hand turn to come off the target, our #3 engine was shot out. Now we had the two starboard engines operating, and we were a long way from home. We were forced out of formation because we could not keep up with the other planes in the group. As soon as we cleared the immediate target area, my pilot, John Ellis, explained our predicament and polled the crew on one of two options: (1) We were close enough to Switzerland to be able to reach that neutral country and be confronted with internment for the balance of the war., or (2) take our chances and head for the barn. The vote was unanimous head for home!
So we headed toward England all alone and probably four or five hours away from our home base. It was a frightening experience to be alone over enemy territory, badly disabled, and a sitting target for just one enemy fighter to come up and blow us out of the sky. Fortunately for us we encountered some of our own fighters (P-47s) about halfway home.
Although we had known an hour or so after leaving Munich that we would be unable to reach England, we felt confident that we had enough fuel to reach the English Channel or North Sea. Two friendly fighters stayed with us until we ditched in the North Sea about 35 miles from the English coastline. We hit the water at 5:30 PM, and all nine of us in the crew were able to evacuate the plane in about thirty seconds.
All of you know, a B-17 carries two five-man life rafts, but the one I was assigned had been riddles by anti-aircraft fire, so the waist and tail gunners, the co-pilot and I hung onto a one-man life raft for the next few hours. At around 8:30 that night we were rescued by a British seaplane. Although we all boarded the plane and were out of the cold water, we were unable to take off with such a load in heavy sells. Therefore, we had to taxi around the North Sea for another couple of hours until we made contact with a British Air-Sea Rescue boat. We got aboard this launch at 10:30 at night and arrived at a small English coast-side village at 5:30 the next morning. One of our bombers came to an airfield not far from this village and took us to our home base. From there, we were immediately sent to a rest home in Southern England for a week. We didn´t fly another mission until August 13, 1944.
Mission 24, to Bremen, August 30, 1944
Our Mission #24, flown August 30, was to Bremen, Germany. Except for heavy anti-aircraft fire over the target area, it was uneventful, until we came off the target in a left hand turn. We all heard very large banging noises and our airplane abruptly began to nose upwards. Within a few scary minutes or pilot and co-pilot were able to regain control of the airplane, and after leveling off we discovered that one of our own planes flying above us had (unintentionally, of course) dropped some bombs on our ship while we were on the turn. Four or five bombs had hit our plane, and one of them had hit the tail gunner´s compartment. When our pilot attempted to reach the tail gunner on the intercom, there was total silence. Figuring that he might have been injured in this horrible accident, I made my way from the nose of the airplane back to the tail section and found the tail gunner unconscious.
One of the waist gunners and I, using portable oxygen bottles crawled to the tail section, we managed to get the injured gunner into the waist section of the airplane. We administered sulfa to his head wounds, and bandaged them. Unfortunately, the airman died before we could get him to our home base. The only fortunate aspect of this incident was those bombs were no larger then 100-pounders, for I likely would not be around to relate this frightening experience.
/s/ Heber Smith, Alamo, California
Following submitted by: Benjamin H. Beard, Lead and Deputy Bombardier, B-24 aircraft.
Assigned to the 492nd Bomb Group, located at North Pickenham, England.
Transferred to the 467th Bomb Group located at Rackheath, England.
B. H. Beard flew 23 missions.
It must be nice to be a hero
I had twenty-three missions in B-24 aircraft as lead or deputy bombardier, but did not attain hero status. I don´t know whether I was never at the right place at the right time, or didn´t recognize the opportunity when it was available.
A man in the next town got a full-page story in a local newspaper when he wrote about his experience. His was the third plane to take off one cold foggy morning and the wings were covered by ice. They just barely made it over the trees at the end of the runway. The two planes that took off ahead of them had not cleared and were a big mess just at the end of the runway. I was in the next plane scheduled to take off. We had pulled out onto the runway and had revved our engines, just ready to give it throttle, when someone in the tower shot a Very pistol with two red flares. We drove back to the hardstand. That was one time I came close to being a hero, but didn´t know it until we got back to the operations shack.
When I see a Purple Heart medal now I think it is beautiful with that purple background. However, as I recall during the war was fervently wishing that I not be awarded one. When the flak sounded like hail hitting the plane, it got everyone´s attention. Thankfully none of the pieces came through where I was, nor anyone on our plane. So I didn´t earn a Purple Heart. That would have given me some hope of being a hero.
Nine of us trained together, and went to England on a ship together. We all got back safely, but today there are only four of us left. We didn´t even leave the U.S. until after D-day, so things were a lot easier by that time. After a few days in an RAF Base in Ireland, we were assigned to the 492nd Bomb Group (Heavy). The night we arrived two B-24´s had collided over our runway while landing after a mission. Wheels and plane parts were scattered everywhere. This also happened to be the night the group was celebrating having flown one hundred missions. There was quite a party in the officers club. A few days later we learned the group was being disbanded. We were transferred to the 467th Bomb Group (Heavy).
I had only one or two missions with the crew I trained with at Rackenheath Station. When our lead pilot refused to be lead crew, I was put on another crew. I guess they did give me an opportunity to be a hero because this crew was ready for their thirty-fifth mission, and I got to go with them. Everyone knows the last mission is the one most likely to fail. We did get hit with flak over the target. One engine was knocked out. The pilot could not keep up with the formation and so we flew home alone. The pilot and co-pilot nursed that plane along. We threw every thing that was loose and made it back to base. Did that qualify any of us for hero? Absolutely not! At the debriefing that night the commanding officer got our pilot up on the front stage and royally chewed him for risking an airplane over the channel when he could have landed in France without risk.
Gasoline for General Patton´s tanks - 1945
Toward the end of the war General Patton had crossed the Rhine River, where his tanks ran out of gasoline. Our group was one that carried gasoline to France. Large gasoline tanks full of fuel for Patton´s tanks were put into the bomb bay. We landed at an air base in France. The first trip our crew took turned out just fine; we were back at our base the same day. The tanks were filled again, for another flight the next day. The co-pilot and I decided to take our bicycles along this time, so as to ride into town. The pilot had to stay with the plane, and inch it forward as planes ahead unloaded fuel. Unloading was a hang up. On this second trip when we pulled into the unloading zone there was at least a mile long line of B-24 aircraft waiting to unload. The co-pilot and I knew we had plenty of time; so we took off and went to the nearest town.
We found out there was not much to do in this small village. We bought some cheap perfume, and one loaf of bread. I was a little astonished when they handed us the bread without bag or wrapping. Our next stop was a picture show. It let out late evening, and we made our way back to our bikes. Before reaching them we saw men coming out of a building, where they lined up against a building wall seeking cover against a heavy rain fall that rolled down the sidewalk and overflowed the gutter. I hadn´t seen that much rain back on the farm in Nebraska, when we went into town on Saturday night. We started riding our bikes back to the airbase and it got dark. We were riding through territory that had been held by the Germans only about ten days earlier. We didn´t think about it but afterward some friends told us there could have been some danger of being shot. Two enlisted men in a jeep stopped and gave us a ride. We held our bikes and rode in the back seat. When we got to the airbase gate the MP´s asked for the password. The co-pilot and I had not even thought of getting the password so we could get back onto the base. Luckily the enlisted men knew the password and we were not asked.
Our pilot was still waiting in the line of aircraft to unload the fuel. Not until the next morning was the plane unloaded. The weather had turned bad and planes were not allowed to take-off. We parked on a grassy area to wait until the weather cleared. We stayed there the first night and tried to sleep in the plane without getting wet. We found there is no spot where you can stretch out to sleep that doesn´t have some water dripping in. We were warming C-rations with most any fire we could get, and C-rations are sure easy to get tired of quickly. However, they are better then K-rations but only for a limited time. As I remember, we had two nights there in the rain and never did get a night´s sleep without being dripped on during the night. That was the last time we hauled gasoline.
When I think about it after all this time, I guess I´m not hero material, but I did my best.
/s/ Benjamin H. Beard, California
Following submitted by Dan Raymond, Editor Emeritus, General J.H. Doolittle Chapter
8th AFHS, B-24 Flight Engineer, 389th Bomb Group (Heavy), Hethel Station, England.
This anecdote was originally published in the General J.H. Doolittle Chapter´s AIR POWER newsletter, June 2001.
Remembrances of D-Day, June 6, 1944
I was the Flight Engineer on the crew of 2nd Lieutenant Duane A. Hall. We had completed our Phase Training’ at Casper, Wyoming in early March 1944. Leaving Wyoming we flew to Topeka, Kansas, where we were assigned a brand new B-24H aircraft. With orders in hand we flew the southern route to the United Kingdom. We were sent to the aircrew staging location at Valley and Stone, England. From there we were sent by ferry to Quanto and Greencastle Northern Ireland, for Intelligence School.’ We again embarked for England, were assigned to the 389th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 566th Bombardment Squadron at Hethel, England May 20, 1944.
Although we all would eventually all fly in the B-24 aircraft at this base, the first mission would be a mixed crew. Lieutenant Hall, who had previously flown one mission as co-pilot, was assigned to again fly as a co-pilot with Captain Johnson´s seasoned aircrew. This was on June 5. I, too, would find myself assigned to the Johnson crew, filling in for the missing flight engineer. This first mission turned out to be unusual, from the standpoint of the briefing being conducted in the evening, not in the morning hours which would have been the norm. Briefing was to take place at 2130 hours. Regardless of the time, I guess we all knew the invasion was imminent, and here with this pending mission it was on at last. The briefings that evening proved are guess work was right. Our mission was to drop our bombs on a place designated Omaha Beach.’ The objective: to destroy anti-landing barricades and to create craters on the beach for troops moving across the open sand. The only thing left out of the briefings was the timing of the mission. The only firm timing was our movement to the aircraft hardstands following the briefings.
I, along with the rest of the crew, began by preflighting the aircraft. Once on board, engines roaring, we rolled out, marshaling with other mission bound B-24´. But instead of taking off, we were told to shut down our engines. I spent part of the night leaning against the right main landing gear, trying to get some sleep. As I recall, it was difficult to sleep, because England, at the time had double daylight savings time. We forgot how far north the British Isles are; sleep was difficult with daylight all around us at 2330 hours. Dawn came quickly in this zone, arriving at 0330, and with it the word came down to start engines. Still, we were to take off in near darkness.
Although it was pitch black when we took off, we managed to form on the assembly of aircraft, designated Buncher 6. Buncher 6´s assembly ship was called the Green Dragon.’ Green Dragon had a large blinking red arrow in lights on its side, and periodically its crew would fire off Very pistol flares to assist the aircraft in forming into a combat box formation. This was the only time that I was on a mission that formed at night, and once was enough! Regardless of my thoughts following the mission, no such ideas entered my mind as we took off into the darkness and reached the French Coast without incident. Our flight bombed the beach at about 0650. As we turned for home, I glanced down. I never will forget the armada of ships in the English Channel. We joked, as we returned to base, that a man could walk from England to France by jumping from ship to ship. It was surely a sight to behold! With these thoughts in my head, debriefing concluded, I finally got to bed around 0830.
Subsequently, I, and Lieutenant Hall, and those crew members who had not flown a mission as yet, flew their first mission on the afternoon of D-Day. We flew to the railroad marshaling yards at St. Lo, a few miles inshore from the invasion beaches. This time I gathered another memory of that day. It was the sight of wrecked gliders covering every open field near the beachhead. And so, my reminiscences of D-Day still linger.
/s/ Dan Raymond, Arcata, California
By Loren E. Jackson, Pilot, 385th Bomb Group, 551st Bomb Squadron.
Taken from the 8th AF News, and reprinted in the Badger News, 8th AFHS Wisconsin Chapter.
12 June 1944, Epilogue to a War Story
On June 12, 1944, we were shot down by anti-aircraft fire approximately 60 miles north of Paris. Because of the large concentration of German troops in the area at that time, I was captured almost as I hit the ground. In the process of being taken to a POW camp, I passed through many hands. But on this particular day I came in contact with a German general whom I have never been able to forget. This is about him.
My bombardier, Joe Haught, and I were captured within a few minutes of each other. We were taken to a headquarters area in a German staff car where we waited for the next step of our processing to begin. In the front seat were a driver and a guard with a rifle. Joe and I sat in the back seat with an armed guard between us. Suddenly, a soldier ran up to the driver and said something to him and we were on our way. One of the guards said to us in English, “General Gerhart Graf von Schwerin has asked to see the American officers who were just shot down.”
Neither of us knew General Von Schwerin by name or reputation, but we did not relish the thought of facing a high-ranking officer. We were driven to a large chateau and were admitted to a huge living room filled with fine furniture. From the opposite end of the room strode a tall, handsome man dressed in slacks, a white wool turtle-neck sweater and bedroom slippers. He looked then like Gregory Peck looks now. We were too frightened and bewildered second lieutenants as he came toward us. He extended his hand and said warmly in perfect English, “Good morning. I am General Von Schwerin. And you are Lieutenants Jackson and Haught. Please have a seat.” We shook hands and sat down uneasily, wondering what was in store for us. “Would you like some lunch? I can have it for you quickly.”
Evan though some eight hours had elapsed since we had eaten breakfast and were hungry, we replied in the negative. I had been told this sort of thing might happen and my thoughts were that he was trying to poison us. Then he asked if would care for glass of wine and we declined again. Having failed in his attempt with food, he was now using the poison wine technique. We would have none of it. “Cigarette?” he asked. Again we refused, feeling that he was trying to lure us into a trap with kindness.
“How are things in the States?” he then asked. I told him things were fine. “I have spent a lot of time in your country,” he went on. “I have visited 35 of your states and I know your country well. A few years ago I attended Stanford University in – oh what is the name of that little town?” Neither of us responded and he fumbled for the name again. We could see that his inability to recall the name was irritating him. “You know, it’s up in the San Francisco Bay area. What is the name of that town? You know where Stanford is, don’t you?” I told him I knew, but wouldn’t tell him. I was not about to lose the war by telling him that Stanford was at Palo Alto.
The general paused a moment as though shocked, looked intently at me and Joe and then began to laugh. “Oh,” he said, “name rank and serial number only, is that it? Very well, I can see that you have assumed that this is an interrogation, but it really isn’t. You are simply obeying your instructions. I can assure you that you will be interrogated later. I only wanted to chat with you a few minutes. I won’t keep you any longer, but congratulate you on being good soldiers. I want to wish you the best of luck and hope your stay in Germany will be as pleasant as possible under the circumstances.”
We shook hands again and returned to a waiting vehicle that took us to the Stalag Luft that was to be our home until the end of the war. We were always puzzled by the General’s behavior. Here in a deadly war of survival and in the heart of the enemy stronghold, we had encountered a high-ranking officer who appeared to by making overtures to us. It was incongruous with our training and expectations. We were unable to believe he was simply trying to be understanding, kind or hospitable.
Twenty years later, in July 1964, I was alerted for reassignment to Europe. Somehow, my first thought was of General von Schwerin, for whom I had a great deal of concern all these intervening years. I would try to find him. I wasn’t sure where I would start, but I was determined to make every effort to find him. I wanted him to know, for one thing, that the kindness he tried to express to a couple of scared, young Americans had, at last, been recognized and appreciated.
Through the help of a friend in the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, we found that General Graf von Schwerin was retired and living in Bonn. They checked with the general, who said he would be pleased to meet with me again and on Saturday, 14 November 1964, I rang the doorbell of the von Schwerin residence. The general met me at the door with his hand extended. As we were shaking hands, I said, “Palo Alto.” At first, my greeting puzzled him, but then recalling the incident, he laughed heartily and said, “How different our meeting is this time.”
We reminisced and both of us relived a few minutes of June 12, 1944. The more we talked the more he remembered. He appeared hurt and visibly shaken when I confessed Joe and I had refused his hospitality for fear of being poisoned. “I wish we had not had that reputation,” he said. “I only wanted to talk to you, as you now realize. We were told how the war was going, but the accounts were not always accurate. The High Command told us only what they wanted us to believe. I would listen to the BBC broadcasts and this was a dangerous practice, because it was forbidden. But I felt I got a better picture of the war by listening to both sides. For example, I saw spearheads and long thrusts made by your armies, which our accounts completely ignored or denied. My point, in asking to talk to you, was trying to determine if conditions and morale in the states was as bad as we were being told by our propagandists.”
He asked me how my crew had faired in prison. It did not take me long to tell him that our activities had been reduced to routine in the Stalag Luft camp. I described our evacuation from Northern Germany, in January 1945, ahead of the Russian advances and our liberation by Patton’s troops in April, which had been the highlight of our stay in Germany.
In response to questions, the general told of his experiences after our meeting. He was relived of his command in France, soon after our first meeting, and given command of the famous Greyhound Division in Italy. He said he as captured in March 1945 and released two and half years later at Dachau on December 24, 1947. “I got back to my home and family in Munich that Christmas Eve. Just in time to light the candles on our Christmas tree.
“I must ask you,” he continued, “Did you go through the interrogation center at Oberursel near Frankfurt?” I told him that I had, that it was called Dulag Luft and that I didn’t enjoy very much. “Well I went through it too,” he said, “only our troops were running then. And let me say that it didn’t improve a bit under American management.
He suggested a number of sights to see during my three year’s assignment. I told him I expected it to be pleasant, compared to my last visit. “Yes,” he said quietly. “It’s a shame. The whole thing was a tragedy for everyone, for two reasons. First, that the war was a senseless one from the beginning. It was hopeless from the outset. And secondly, and even more tragic, was the fact that our people were fighting, bleeding and dying because of this Nazi criminals at the top. That is the real tragedy.”
He paused for a moment and breathed deeply. “We recover from our material losses, but it takes time. My family, all the Schwerins and myself – lost 52 estates, each of which was worth a fortune. The property is all in the East zone on the Baltic coast. We feel lucky we were all in the West zone, even without those fortunes. But it has not been easy. We Germans have and expression, ‘A bad smell never completely goes away’.” During that hour and a half visit I learned much more about this gentleman, including the fact that he was the military advisor to Chancellor Konrad Adenaur in 1947.
The following Monday, General Gerhart Graf von Schwerin’s picture appeared in “Stars and Stripes” long with several other German and American dignitaries. They had placed a wreath on a memorial to the war dead, of both sides, who had fallen in the battle of the Huertgen Forest. This he did on Veteran’s Day three days before my visit.
/s/ Loren E. Jackson, Wisconsin.
By Tom Mooney, Co-pilot, B-24 Aircraft, 466th Bomb Group,
2nd Air Division, Attlebridge Station, England, October 1944.
Published in AIRPOWER, General J.H. Doolittle Chapter.
Dancing Fires on Our Aircraft’s Surface
Early in October we received an assignment to fly as decoys for other aircraft flying night time missions. Our function was to draw enemy anti-aircraft fire away from the Royal Air Force bombers, as they flew over the English Channel into German airspace.
Our route was to take us south over the greater London metropolitan area. As I recall, the weather during this period was lousy, heavy with clouds; all the way from ground zero to our leveling off height of 15,000 feet. The tactics taken over the metro area had us maneuvering in a circular pattern, but always moving further toward the Continent. As usual, the British search lights flashed on as we flew this route, painting our aircraft in near blinding light. This light we could shake off, by climbing to a higher altitude. We flew our aircraft to a height of 18,000 feet; only to find ourselves enveloped in moisture bearing storm clouds. In the clouds, at this altitude, our big ass bird was again struck by light, but this time it was not from British lights.
The glowing light was not uniform, as it jumped from tail to wings. Crew members choked the intercom with words describing the light as it moved along the tail fins, “…jumping along the leading edge of the wings, dancing along the deicer rubber boots, spinning out in a series of big circles.”
The display scared the heck out of our crew. The pilot and I both new the cause of the eerie lights, and took the action to stave off the lights. We two eased the fear of the others, but not until we had pulled out of the storm clouds and dropped to a more calming altitude. Our pilot explained the phenomena to the crew, who had never experienced such a scene. The explanation was scientific but simple.
As we flew through the storm clouds the aircraft was charged with static electricity. The plane picked up a negative charge, which built up on the aircraft’s surfaces. Flying out of the storm clouds the charge was dissipated.
Fortunately, the rest of the flight was uneventful. As for the phenomena, it was the only time we would encounter St. Elmo’s fire.
/s/ Tom Mooney, Santa Rosa, California
By Charles W. Prindle, Co-pilot, B-24 Aircraft, 389th Bomb Group,
“The Sky Scorpions,” 2nd Air Division, Hethel Station, England,
Published in AIRPOWER, General J.H. Doolittle Chapter.
A Surprise Homecoming on Three Engines
I was a co-pilot on our aircraft on a day like most days when flying a mission to Europe, except this one would shake up all the crew members like no other. We had started out on a mission carrying 7100 pounds of fragmentation bombs.
Shortly after take off and form up, we were out over the English Channel when # 1 engine lost oil pressure. In a moment of patriotism our pilot decided to return to Hethel, without jettisoning the bomb load. The idea being, the bombs could be used another day.
We had plenty of altitude and it was felt that there would be no problem making an approach to Hethel on three engines. Approach was normal until we were about 150 feet altitude, and very close to the runway. Suddenly we saw an English worker walk out onto the runway directly in front of our approach. I, like the pilot, were startled into action, instinct taking over our moves, and an immediate go around was started.
Gear up, flaps milked up and full extreme emergency power applied. Because of the loss of the outboard engine, full right rudder was applied but the plane was still in a slow turn left, when we saw a sight we did not need in our view. Directly in front of us was Second Air Division Headquarters.
We flew over the headquarters at about 150 feet, and looking out my side of the aircraft I saw people scrabbling for their lives. I can well imagine the thunderous roar of the revved up engines, and the ground shaking under the runner’s feet.
An approach was again made and this time we were able to complete a normal three engine landing. In discussion following the extreme maneuver it was decided all three operational engines needed to be replaced. As for the cause of the nearly fatal landing, it seems the English worker was deaf, and did not hear the approaching aircraft.
To say that our crew, the pilot and I, were chastised would be putting it mildly. We had risked carrying our bomb load back to base, and came close to wiping out a division headquarters staff. I thought, during the debriefing, that the several echelons of commanders in the room would have apoplexy.
In retrospect, after the fiery discussion, I and my pilot thought that perhaps we could have pulled up slightly on the approach and cleared the worker, landed further down the landing strip, and stopped prior to the end of the runway.
/s/ Charles W. Prindle, Santa Rosa, CA
This article by Ralph Kinney Bennett was published in the Fall 2003 newsletter of the National World War II Memorial Society
Tomorrow they will lay the remains of Glenn Rojohn to rest in the Peace Lutheran Cemetery in the little town of Greenock , Pa. , just southeast of Pittsburgh . He was 81, and had been in the air conditioning and plumbing business in nearby McKeesport . If you had seen him on the street he would probably have looked to you like so many other graying, bespectacled old World War II veterans whose names appear so often now on obituary pages.
But like so many of them, though he seldom talked about it, he could have told you one hell of a story. He won the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart all in one fell swoop in the skies over Germany on December 31, 1944. Fell swoop indeed.
Capt. Glenn Rojohn, of the 8th Air Force's 100th Bomb Group was flying his B-17G Flying Fortress bomber on a raid over Hamburg. His formation had braved heavy flak to drop their bombs, then turned 180 degrees to head out over the North Sea. They had finally turned northwest, headed back to England, when they were jumped by German fighters at 22,000 feet. The Messerschmitt Me-109s pressed their attack so closely that Capt. Rojohn could see the faces of the German pilots. He and other pilots fought to remain in formation so they could use each other's guns to defend the group. Rojohn saw a B-17 ahead of him burst into flames and slide sickeningly toward the earth. He gunned his ship forward to fill in the gap. He felt a huge impact. The big bomber shuddered, felt suddenly very heavy and began losing altitude. Rojohn grasped almost immediately that he had collided with another plane. A B-17 below him, piloted by Lt. William G. McNab, had slammed the top of its fuselage into the bottom of Rojohn's. The top turret gun of McNab's plane was now locked in the belly of Rojohn's plane and the ball turret in the belly of Rojohn's had smashed through the top of McNab's. The two bombers were almost perfectly aligned -- the tail of the lower plane was slightly to the left of Rojohn's tailpiece. They were stuck together, as a crewman later recalled, "like mating dragon flies."
Three of the engines on the bottom plane were still running, as were all four of Rojohn's. The fourth engine on the lower bomber was on fire and the flames were spreading to the rest of the aircraft. The two were losing altitude quickly. Rojohn tried several times to gun his engines and break free of the other plane. The two were inextricably locked together. Fearing a fire, Rojohn cut his engines and rang the bailout bell. For his crew to have any chance of parachuting, he had to keep the plane under control somehow.
The ball turret, hanging below the belly of the B-17, was considered by many to be a death trap -- the worst station on the bomber. In this case, both ball turrets figured in a swift and terrible drama of life and death. Staff Sgt. Edward L. Woodall, Jr., in the ball turret of the lower bomber had felt the impact of the collision above him and saw shards of metal drop past him. Worse, he realized both electrical and hydraulic power was gone.
Remembering escape drills, he grabbed the handcrank, released the clutch and cranked the turret and its guns until they were straight down, then turned and climbed out the back of the turret up into the fuselage. Once inside the plane's belly Woodall saw a chilling sight, the ball turret of the other bomber protruding through the top of the fuselage. In that turret, hopelessly trapped, was Staff Sgt. Joseph Russo. Several crew members of Rojohn's plane tried frantically to crank Russo's turret around so he could escape, but, jammed into the fuselage of the lower plane, it would not budge. Perhaps unaware that his voice was going out over the intercom of his plane, Sgt. Russo began reciting his Hail Marys.
Up in the cockpit, Capt. Rojohn and his co-pilot 2nd Lt. William G. Leek, Jr., had propped their feet against the instrument panel so they could pull back on their controls with all their strength, trying to prevent their plane from going into a spinning dive that would prevent the crew from jumping out. Capt. Rojohn motion left and the two managed to wheel the huge, collision-born hybrid of a plane back toward the German coast. Leek felt like he was intruding on Sgt. Russo as his prayers crackled over the radio, so he pulled off his flying helmet with its earphones.
Rojohn, immediately grasping that crew could not exit from the bottom of his plane, ordered his top turret gunner and his radio operator, Tech Sgts. Orville Elkin and Edward G. Neuhaus to make their way to the back of the fuselage and out the waist door on the left behind the wing. Then he got his navigator, 2nd Lt. Robert Washington, and his bombardier, Sgt. James Shirley to follow them. As Rojohn and Leek somehow held the plane steady, these four men, as well as waist gunner, Sgt. Roy Little, and tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Francis Chase, were able to bail out.
Now the plane locked below them was aflame. Fire poured over Rojohn's left wing. He could feel the heat from the plane below and hear the sound of .50 machinegun ammunition "cooking off" in the flames. Capt. Rojohn ordered Lieut. Leek to bail out. Leek knew that without him helping keep the controls back, the plane would drop in a flaming spiral and the centrifugal force would prevent Rojohn from bailing. He refused the order.
Meanwhile, German soldiers and civilians on the ground that afternoon looked up in wonder. Some of them thought they were seeing a new Allied secret weapon -- a strange eight-engined double bomber. But anti-aircraft gunners on the North Sea coastal island of Wangerooge had seen the collision. A German battery captain wrote in his logbook at 12:47 p.m.: "Two fortresses collided in a formation in the NE. The planes flew hooked together and flew 20 miles south. The two planes were unable to fight anymore. The crash could be awaited so I stopped the firing at these two planes."
Suspended in his parachute in the cold December sky, Bob Washington watched with deadly fascination as the mated bombers, trailing black smoke, fell to earth about three miles away, their downward trip ending in an ugly boiling blossom of fire.
In the cockpit Rojohn and Leek held grimly to the controls trying to ride a falling rock. Leek tersely recalled, "The ground came up faster and faster. Praying was allowed. We gave it one last effort and slammed into the ground." The McNab plane on the bottom exploded, vaulting the other B-17 upward and forward. It slammed back to the ground, sliding along until its left wing slammed through a wooden building and the smoldering mess of came to a stop. Rojohn and Leek were still seated in their cockpit. The nose of the plane was relatively intact, but everything from the B-17 massive wings back was destroyed. They looked at each other incredulously. Neither was badly injured.
Movies have nothing on reality. Still perhaps in shock, Leek crawled out through a huge hole behind the cockpit, felt for the familiar pack in his uniform pocket pulled out a cigarette. He placed it in his mouth and was about to light it. Then he noticed a young German soldier pointing a rifle at him. The soldier looked scared and annoyed. He grabbed the cigarette out of Leak's mouth and pointed down to the gasoline pouring out over the wing from a ruptured fuel tank.
Two of the six men who parachuted from Rojohn's plane did not survive the jump. But the other four and, amazingly, four men from the other bomber, including ball turret gunner Woodall, survived. All were taken prisoner. Several of them were interrogated at length by the Germans until they were satisfied that what had crashed was not a new American secret weapon.
Rojohn, typically, didn't talk much about his Distinguished Flying Cross. Of Leek, he said, 'in all fairness to my co-pilot, he's the reason I'm alive today."
Like so many veterans, Rojohn got unsentimentally back to life after the war, marrying and raising a son and daughter. For many years, though, he tried to link back up with Leek, going through government records to try to track him down. It took him 40 years, but in 1986, he found the number of Leeks' mother, in Washington State. Yes, her son Bill was visiting from California. Would Rojohn like to speak with him? Some things are better left unsaid. One can imagine that first conversation between the two men who had shared that wild ride in the cockpit of a B-17. A year later, the two were re-united at a reunion of the 100th Bomb Group in Long Beach, Calif. Bill Leek died the following year.
Glenn Rojohn was the last survivor of the remarkable piggyback flight. He was like thousands upon thousands of men, soda jerks and lumberjacks, teachers and dentists, students and lawyers and service station attendants and store clerks and farm boys who in the prime of their lives went to war.
He died last Saturday after a long siege of sickness. But he apparently faced that final battle with the same grim aplomb he displayed that remarkable day over Germany so long ago. Let us be thankful for such men.
Following submitted by: Whitmal Hill, 91st Bomb Group National Capital Area Chapter, 8th AFHS; permission granted by Chapter President George Hoidra.
TOILET PAPER SAVES THE MISSION
Ground personnel rarely had opportunities for heroic deeds; but here’s one incident that occurred at Bassingborn, England that created a hero, as told by Whitmal W. Hill.
Early one morning in the 91st Bomb Group, 323rd Bomb Squadron’s dispersal area; armament crews were loading bombs for a “maximum effort” mission. Electricity was in the air as crews made last minute checks; armament men eased trucks pulling trailers loaded with bombs up to planes, hung the bombs in the bomb racks, armed them and inserted the pins. The pins were secured to wires attached to the side of the bomb bay so that when the bombs were dropped pins would be withdrawn and bombs would fall fully armed.
Once pins were withdrawn a pin-wheel on the nose of the bomb commenced to spin, it would turn a number of revolutions, and the bomb would then detonate. Thus, the pins insured the safety of the bombs while in the bomb bay. This day smaller bombs then usual were being loaded, which permitted more then the normal count to be loaded.
As it was a “maximum effort,” Captain Larson, Squadron Engineering Officer, rode his bicycle out to the dispersal area to insure all was going well and to help if needed. Ground crews had the aircraft ready for boarding when the aircrews arrived. Engines started, and the group’s planes began to taxi out to the perimeter track.
Over sixty loaded B-17s from four squadrons were lined up nose to tail on both sides of the intersection where the perimeter strip runway met. They were waiting for the “take-off flare” from the tower. As all the flyable planes were going, Captain Larson also left the dispersal area and began pedaling back to his hanger office. At the intersection he watched the crews’ complete pre-flight checks. Horizontal and vertical stabilizers were swinging back and forth, flaps and elevators went up and down, and bomb bay doors opened and closed.
As Captain Larson watched, a B-17 opened its bomb bay doors and out tumbled a cantankerous bomb under the plane. The fall pulled the pin! The detonating pin-wheel was spinning furiously. What a dilemma—about six hundred airmen sitting in fully gassed and loaded B-17s, all within a short distance of each other waiting take-off.
As fate would have it, Captain Larson was nearby the effected aircraft. He had spotted the bomb as it rolled out. He hopped off his bicycle—ran up to the plane, jerked open the waist door, reached inside, grabbing a roll of toilet paper near the tail wheel, raced over to the bomb—and shoved the toilet roll into the spinning blades of the detonator, and halted the spinning pin-wheel.
Meanwhile, as this was going on, the “go” flare rods in the air, and the planes began taking off down the runway in short intervals. Soon it was the turn of the B-17 that had dropped its bomb. The waist and bomb bay doors were now closed, and down the runway it went to war. Shortly an armament crew arrived, made the bomb safe and removed it. No one hurt, there were no damage, but Captain Larson was that day a hero.
Following submitted by Gale Moore, Radio Operator, B-24 aircraft, 493rd Bomb Group, Debach, England; Technical Sergeant Gale Moore flew 35 missions, July to December 1944. General J.H. Doolittle Chapter, 8th AFHS. Home: Cloverdale, CA
12 The Telegram, December 1944
My Dad was a good father, maybe even a great man. He worked hard, kept the family warm, dry and secure. We always had a roof over our head and food on the table. Any one of those accomplishments was no little feat during the “great depression”. He was generous, honest to a fault, had a great sense of humor and made friends easily. But he didn’t trust airplanes, hated snakes and didn’t have any great affection for democrats.
The family left the flat lands of Illinois and ended up in California in mid 1940. Less than two years later and a few months after Pearl Harbor I had my eighteenth birthday and became a “person of interest” for the local draft board. A year to the day later, on my nineteenth birthday, I was inducted into The Army of the United States of America. This turn of events did not cause my Dad any unusual degree of apprehension beyond what any parent might feel when one of their own was potentially about to be placed in harms way.
While waiting induction I took an interim job at McClellan Army Air Force(AAF) Base in Sacramento, CA. The base was gearing up for the long haul and had a lot of workers and as yet, very little work. Everyone was urged to look busy which to me is very very hard way to make a living. Needless to say I was not the least bit enthused with the way the Air Force chose to run its railroad.
So at the induction center where we were tested, examined, prodded inoculated and taught to bend over and to ”turn my head and cough” I continually asked, requested and even pleaded that I not be assigned to the AAF. As all of us who were in the service soon found out, it wasn‘t “what you see is what you get “ it was “what you ask for is what you don‘t get“. I hadn’t been around long enough yet to acquire that bit of information but in about a month I got my first lesson and found myself on a train bound for the AAF Technical Training Command(Radio School), Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Incidentally, the train I was on dumped a bunch of guys off at the radio school in East St Louis Il and another group off in Chicago, But I, who had a whole bunch of friends and relatives in Illinois, went on to South Dakota.
Now all of this didn’t particularly increase my dad’s level of anxiety because radio training schools weren’t noted for their excessive use of airplanes and besides there must be a lot of radios on the ground. He became a little less relaxed when I went to Aerial Gunners school in Laredo, TX and maybe even a little more uneasy when I was transferred to March Field and subjected to the foibles of the B24 Liberator for the next few months while getting to know all there was to know about that particular weapon of war.
My dad lived in the general area of March Field then, so we got to sit and resolve most of the worlds problems a few times before I transferred on. He didn’t say too much about my chosen way to help defeat the enemies of democracy which was what WWII was all about, but it was apparent that he believed that if God had intended man to fly he would surely have given him a ticket and anyway what was wrong with keeping at least one foot on the ground.
In mid April we were transferred to Hamilton Field, just north of San Francisco Along about here was where communications with the outside world became a little garbled, maybe almost non-existent. You remember the WWII admonition, “Loose Lips Sink Ships”? Well that was thought to apply also to airplanes, trains, walking or any other mode of moving troops. Consequently, censorship was tight at our location. We were not allowed to say much of anything to the home folks about where we were, what we were doing, or where we were going. But finally we did enter the war - personally.
My crew and I were entrusted with a brand new B24G and headed off toward our destiny which meant flying that marvel of American design and productive skill all the way to England via South America and Africa. We had a little trouble doing that because the pilot kept getting sick. We managed to get the South Atlantic flown as a crew, but on the other side the pilot had a relapse. And the pilot-less crew eventually arrived in Marrekech, Morroco where we left our B24 to be cannibalized for hard to get parts for airplanes that had pilots. We continued on and in late June finally arrived as a crew at the 493 Bomb Group in Debach, England, which was to be our home away from home for the most unforgettable period of my life. I flew my first bombing mission July 6, 1944.
Now as I mentioned secrecy was considered all important so for all this period I was never allowed to tell the folks at home exactly what was going on. They did know that I was in England, that I was flying and getting mixed up with those damn Germans from time to time. They were also able to figure out that I was still alive as of the day I wrote my last letter home, but they didn’t know much else. After what seemed like forever, but was really only about eight months or so since I left home, I flew my thirty-fifth and final mission on Christmas Day 1944. This was such a momentous occasion that the censors had long ago decided that we were free to share that bit of good news with the world.
Guess I had not really thought through how much this not knowing was taking its toll on the folks back home but now I could tell them that the combat was over. We didn’t have e-mail or cell phones then, or even access to whatever international phone service there was in those days so I figured a telegram was the answer. That is what I did the next morning. I went down to the telegraph office, walking about three feet off the ground the most of the way; so happy and proud that I was still alive.
I sent a telegram to my wife letting her in on the good news. My wife Alice lived in Whittier Ca. with my parents while I was overseas. She was working and not at home when the wire arrived but my dad worked the graveyard shift and was home. My dad was of the WW I era where telegrams from overseas during a war were to be avoided at all costs, and were known to contain only bad news. Evidently dad thought the worst when that telegram arrived. He did not open it since it was not addressed to him but immediately got on the bus and made the trip to down town LA where Alice was working. She said he walked into the building as white as a sheet, walked up to the counter and handed her the envelope containing the telegram. She probably wasn’t too calm at this point either but she opened it read it and told dad, “He is OK”. She said he never uttered a sound all the while he was there but turned around, walked out of the building, and went home.
My dad lived to the age of 93. He still disliked snakes and had never voted for a democrat. He did fly a few times commercially in later life but like his only son, never was completely comfortable in or around airplanes. I never sent another telegram to anyone. He never mentioned that telegram to me.
The following submitted by: Carl O. Flagstad, Navigator, 385th Bomb Group; a Prisoner of War, The stories appeared in the BADGER NEWS, 8th AFHS Wisconsin Chapter
SITES AND SOUNDS IN STALAG LUFT I
There was no Peace on Earth, or goodwill among men as the dreary Christmas season approached. Yet, in the most unlikely place, surrounded by barbed wire, 24 Americans, with nothing for them, managed to provide a gift of love that brought a smile to the face of an innocent child – the daughter of an enemy. The setting was Stalag Luft I, a prisoner of war camp for USAAF officers near the village of Barth on the Baltic Sea Coast, an area in what was later to be part of East Germany, following the end of World War II.
Carl Flagstad’s war ended on January 4. 1944, near the Kiel Canal, when ME-109s and FW-190s waited until American P-47 escorts waggled their wings at the bombers and scurried back to refuel. This gave the aircraft of the Luftwaffe their opportunity to strike at the near helpless bombers.
In the fire fight that ensued above German territory, Lieutenant Flagstad’s aircraft was struck by gunfire, and lost two engines. The unstable aircraft dropped out of formation, losing altitude, and forced the crew to bail out at 2.000 feet. Capture by Germans came almost as the crew hit the ground. Lieutenant Flagstad, for one, was taken to Stalag Luft I, where his interrogation began for several fearful hours, until transferred into the prisoner population of “kriegies,” a term the prisoners used, derived from the word “krieg” meaning “war.”
In conversation now, Carl Flagstad tells of famous American officers, who were also POWs in the prison located at Barth: LtCol Francis Gabreski, and Hubert Zemke, of the 56th Ftr Gp; Col Einer Malstrom, 356th Ftr Gp; and Col Henry Spicer, 557th Ftr Gp. The latter officer was rarely seen, because he was known to be “as independent as a hog on ice, for refusing any order of the German commandant. Carl Flagstad also recalls a time when all the Jewish prisoners were segregated in a new compound across the road from the others. At the time it was said the Germans were planning to use them to build up defenses, in the west against the expected invasion. They, however, remained there.
Several months after being imprisoned a visitor came to Stalag Luft I, a sort of one-man German version of an USO personage. His visit was aimed at lifting the morale of the German guards. The man was Max Schmeling, the famous German boxing champion. Schmeling strolled around the camp, speaking and demonstrating his prowess as a boxer. He not only drew the attention of the guards, but attracted hundreds of kriegies who wanted to see and talk to the man who had once defeated the great Joe Louis. Flagstad says that the senior American officer in the camp fumed and ranted that there be no fraternization with the enemy – his exhortations fell on deaf ears. Carl Flagstad recalled another character from the camp, another enemy, who could not be ignored. He was Corporal Bruno Bediger, a short and stocky member of the guard force, who always drew the attention of the inmates because of his position in the camp. He was the prison’s wily interpreter, who relayed messages from the camp’s commandant, and therefore came and went in our barrack room as he pleased, which put him at ease in German camp life. For low-ranking guards, life wasn’t pleasant, but safer then a combat zone, and gave them somewhat of view of the war from another angle.
Bediger, like many of the other guards, ignored reports of new weapons that would turn the tide. For them, the question was one of survival for themselves and their families. They in particular, worried about those final days that might be coming; fearing orders would send them to the eastern front to face the dreaded Russians. Bediger too, had this fear, and over time developed a rapport with the prisoners, beyond his duties.
Getting to know Bediger was simple enough, inasmuch as he came and went, and was most talkative at times. He acknowledged, reluctantly and sadly that Germany had already lost the war. He had seen it all before, when as a boy of thirteen Germany had lost to the Allies in World War I. After that conflict he was orphaned, and grew up roaming the streets of Hamburg; living by his wits, often illegally. When old enough he became a merchant seaman. He jumped ship in New York, fled to New Jersey, and became a short order cook in a greasy café. Here he learned English. Life changed, but not due to success in the States.
As he explained ruefully, he, like a lot of other displaced Germans became intoxicated by the early successes of Adolph Hitler. And like so many others, he returned to the Fatherland to gain a piece of the successes. Eventually he was conscripted into the German Luftwaffe. So here was a disillusioned German guard, as an interpreter and Corporal trying to survive and support a wife and two-year old daughter, while doing his duties speaking for the commandant, Major Von Mueller
Twenty-four prisoners; pilots, navigators, and bombardiers were crowded together in Room 9, Block 2, which housed veteran American kriegies; some spending their second Christmas behind barbed wire. We all would listen intently to Bediger mouthing the words of the Commandant Von Mueller; especially when it involved escape. Too often he would announce that Major Von Mueller had ordered all barracks be emptied, even in freezing weather; while the guards searched for escape tunnels.
Through Bediger, the commandant would announce that nobody ever escaped Barth, certainly not through a tunnel. It would be emphasized that the Major became aware of each tunnel as soon as it was started, and that he kept a map of its progress; until the day it was exposed. He was right about that, for no one did escaped by tunnel from Barth. Those tunnels not abandoned, were destroyed by the guards. The Major would taunt the prisoners by display of a sign, after a discovery reading: “The Weasel strikes again.”
However, Corporal Bediger may have been wrong concerning the thought that no one escaped Barth. For rumor had it that an escape had been accomplished, through by another means. In the early part of the war a British airman escaped by hiding in a mail sack bound for Sweden. Legends of escapes abounded throughout the camp.
In addition to tunnels, the Major continually sought out radios, which kept the prisoners informed of the war’s progress. In our block these homemade, clandestine and well-hidden radio receivers sustained our morale, especially when hearing the friendly voice of a BBC announcer. From him, we knew the war was being won, and would probably be over within a year.
One overriding worry we all thought about, but rarely mentioned, was what would happen in the final days of the war. Would Hitler, in a maddening frenzy, order the execution of the prisoners? If our camp captors, the Luftwaffe, refused to carry out such an order, would storm troopers arrive to carry out the grim tasks? Even so, we kept a form of civility, though distant, with Corporal Bediger, although he did appear to soften his attitude toward our plight.
Corporal Bediger had expressed, in an off-hand way, sympathy when a young Lieutenant from Room 9, Richard Wyman of Maine, was killed by a single shot from a guard tower during an air raid. Lieutenant Wyman had, as camp orders dictated, sought cover inside, and had reached the doorway of Block 2 when the bullet struck. He died on the dirty barracks floor, and the commandant bent to the wishes of the Americans that he be buried in Barth cemetery.
Corporal Bediger said he didn’t think the guard meant to kill Wyman. “A lucky shot, fortunes of war.” he added wryly. Another factor that drew us kriegies closer and somewhat closer to our keepers was the fact we all were at the mercy of a food shortage. Horsemeat eventually became a staple in camp, and around the whole of Barth. In Stalag Luft I, Red Cross food package delivery became less and less due to the crumbling German transportation system. The few packages that did make it through were most welcome by the kriegies. They were the envy of the camp guards, especially with Christmas only days away December 1944.
The following submitted by: Carl O. Flagstad, Navigator, 385th Bomb Group; a Prisoner of War, The stories appeared in the BADGER NEWS, 8th AFHS Wisconsin Chapter
25 December, 1944, Remembrance of a Christmas Gift
With Christmas of 1944 now only three days away, Corporal Bediger grew even more morose. He would talk at length, not about the war, but about his wife and daughter, usually the latter. “Life was hard,” he’d lament. He, and his wife, wanted desperately to make their child happy on Christmas day. But there was little if anything to buy, even if the Corporal had money.
He pointed out that he had noticed Red Cross packages usually contained a bar of soap, some with a swan on the wrapper. Maybe, if he could smuggle some tools and wood, into Room 9, the Americans would do him a favor – not him exactly, but rather his daughter. What he had in mind was a rocking chair in the shape of a swan. He admitted there would be risks involved for all, including him. To lessen the risk, he’d pick up the tool each evening.
That is how it all began during that strange Christmas season of 1944. An enemy asking his enemies for help, asking for a moment, in a war-torn world, that goodwill and the universal love of children is kept alive. The reply given this Corporal was a smile on the faces of every kriegie in Room 9.
In the days and hours before Christmas Eve, the rocking swan took shape. During this period the boys in Room 9 appeared somewhat happier as effort progressed. Even the winter sun seemed to shed more warmth. And so, on the night before Christmas, Corporal Bediger picked up the finished swan, which was gleaming in a coat of fresh paint, paint, like the wood and tools that had been smuggled into the barrack under his great coat. He thanked all the prisoners, nodded, and departed.
Corporal Bediger was back the next day – Christmas! From under his great coat he brought forth a bottle of schnapps and pumpernickel bread. “From my wife,” he said, “She wants to thank you boys, and so do I. My little daughter was pleased with her swan.” At least Christmas felt somewhat like Christmas, for a while.
The Corporal’s worst fears came to pass in March 1945 when he was ordered to the Eastern front. Year’s later Room 9 people tried to find out what happened to the Corporal and his family, but without success. A mere corporal was a small statistic in a big war.
Carl Flagstad ended his remembrance saying, “Each Christmas, those of us still living, wonder about a child we never saw. She would be around forty years old now. We wonder about the swan; did it survive and gladden another generation during the holiday season. That strange Christmas we had in 1944, I like to think that something reached out and touched many in that prison camp. The “24” in Room 9, Bediger, and most likely the German camp officers who might have looked the other way, as material were smuggled in, and a swan smuggled out. I like to think love and concern for a small child can transcend any barrier – even barbed wire.”
Carl Flagstad added a post script to the story from 1945. Three weeks after the Russians took over the camp, the 8th Air Force sent in some bombers that landed at a nearby field. All former prisoners were not immediately sent home, but instead the former kriegies spent three weeks in tents outside Paris, France. Each man was given $100, which could not be spent, inasmuch as we were not able to go to Paris. Carl Flagstad did eventually reach home.
This is a story of women in the armed forces. It is just one story of women played during the war. It was written by Julie Croft, a high school student, who interviewed a former member of the Women’s Army Corps. Julie Croft’s oral history session was first published in a compilation of interviews of veterans of the Eighth Air Force, circa 1942-1945, under the title: SILENT HEROES AMONG US, published by New Horizon Publishing in 1997.
The project was conceived by members of the Western Pennsylvania Wing of the 8th Air Force Historical Society. Interviews were conducted by Butler High School Students, of the Butler Area School District in Pennsylvania. The project was funded by The Golden Tornado Foundation.
Rita M. Strobel Geibel, W.A.C. Photo Technician, 325th Photographic Wing, 7th Photographic Group, Reconnaissance Base Laboratory, 8th Air Force.
RECOLLECTIONS OF A WOMEN’S ARMY CORPS MEMBER.
The interview began with Rita M. Strobel Geibel, a former member of the Women Army Corps stating: “The women were criticized, and ya know a lot of it was nothing but garbage.” The interview continued along in anecdote form without editing.
There was a lot of conflict between the women and men. There were seventeen thousand [women] that served overseas, and I was in one of the first battalions to go. What was unusual about mine was the fact I was in photography. I knew nothing about photography. I graduated from Butler High in 1941…I went to defense school in Pittsburgh for the government and studied sheet metal…. They sent me to Baltimore where I studied blueprinting for two months, and they gave me a job. I was making real good money, but I wasn’t content, I wanted to go into the service. So I came home and told my mother, and she didn’t want me to go…but I convinced her, and finally I went. She told me afterwards, saying, “Ya know…when you were about seven years old you told me …that there was gonna be a women’s army someday and you were gonna be in it.” …I was twenty-two [when I went over].
[My] basic training… [was in] Georgia. …We went through the same basics anybody else did. We had to climb obstacles. We had to lie down in the mud. We practiced abandoning ship at New York…in case we sunk when we were going overseas. We did everything just like them [the men], ‘cause we had to in case anything were to happen to us.
In fact, when we were crossing, we had a fifty ship convoy…and to the right of us appeared a U-boat, and the U-boat fired at us, and so we sunk it. I saw the debris. Not only that, then we had to change course…. When you were back in the boats going over and coming back…there were lots of mines the Germans had, and you we were always afraid you were going to hit one of those, especially at night. You wouldn’t be able to see them.
When we got overseas it was such a thing that I had never seen. I personally have pictures of everything…. I have this collection in a wooden box. We [the lab’] printed over two million prints in a month, and you know…it was history on a multi-printer. We had never seen these machines. They just put us on it, and we learned to use them. There were seven of these machines all together, and put out seventy-seven percent on the pictures in these machines. That’s how fast they were getting then out. Sometimes we worked twenty-four hours, around the clock, with three shifts.
One of the big rolls of film they had we put on the machine in complete dark. After it went through the chemicals and into the hypo you could turn on a yellow light. One time one of the splices got loose and started a fire…. They got it out in a hurry though, but we could have been burnt to death because there… was no place to go.
The photographic work that we had was so complicated you wouldn’t believe. [When] we did developing of the film we were among the V-1 and V-2 Rockets the whole time, night and day, from ’43 to ’45. The V-1 was like an outboard motorboat, and when it shut off you knew it was going to land near you; and if it kept going, you knew you didn’t have to worry about it. …you never knew what was going to happen to ya. You were worried about your family and vise versa.
At our photography laboratory…they had twenty-four hour guard all the time, all around the lab’. The guys told us after the war they had no ammunition for their guns. If we’d ever known that, we’d have been hysterical. The guys weren’t allowed to tell; and when you keep a secret you have to keep a secret.
We used to be afraid when we’d walk up and down the lab’ at night, ‘cause it as pitch dark…. You never knew when the enemy or somebody might come in and grab you. At the…entrance, coming into our base one morning they found an English woman dead. She was stripped of all her clothes. Whatever happened to her we never found out, but it was enough to frighten you.
[When] we’d come off a shift at eleven o’clock at night, we had to walk two miles up a hill from the lab’ in complete dark. We would just get settled down and all of a sudden those sirens would go off…. You were so tired from working, and all you wanted was sleep. When those sirens would go off we had to go out and stand in those foxholes until they called clear. We used to always say, “I’d rather be in the hut and hit with them then be out in the open and hit with them.”
We had two blankets. Wool blankets. We gave one to the boys in France ‘cause they were short. That left us one blanket. We had a mattress, - a three piece mattress, and the hardest thing you’d ever laid on. And we had pillows, Chinese pillows; they were hard as a rock.
We had an unheated building no heat whatsoever, very damp. Sometimes we wore our woolen overcoat, a long horrible looking overcoat. We had high top shoes, brown shoes that we wore. They were above the ankle. When you polished them up, they were nice.
We were the first women to make history in sports. We came in second place in this [basketball], and first place in volleyball. We made history in all the sports. We got two medals. I played softball, and volley ball in England, Germany, and Belgium. I even shot rifles, but…it was so loud it started to bother my ears, and I quit it.
We were also the first women to wear slacks, but they were ugly. They weren’t nice like the ones they have now.
We had a real nice thing at Christmas time. It probably was in ’44. It had to be ’44. We decorated all the huts with anything we could get. We went down to the hill and got pine trees. We tied for first place, and we got two bottles of champagne…dated 1929 for a prize.
We had this open house. We had one hundred orphans who had no home – orphans of the war. We had them for turkey dinner. They came to our huts, and we made popcorn, and put it in our helmets, and passed it around to the kids. It was very touching…. They were beautiful children.
[When we went to Germany] a German boy set fire to our hotel. He was working for us. We were clear up on the top floor. They had to send up three times to get us out. By the time we got down, smoke was coming [up].
So here they had to hold all personnel, and they had to search them and take all their clothes off. You should have seen all the jewelry they stole. So they put it out on the table and had us come down and identify it….
[In] Germany one of the W.A.C. officers, a girl from Dayton, Ohio and I, were able to get a jeep. We wanted to see Hitler’s home at Berchesgarten. We got lost and ran out of gas. We ran into a black infantry cab, and they filled our jeep up. They advised us not to go up to Berchesgarten because there were snipers in the woods, and they said there was snow in the mountains. They said, “Why don’t you go see Dachau.” We said, “What’s Dachau?” And they said, “It’s where they put thirty-thousand people to death, mostly Jews, some gypsies, and there were some Germans….”
I had no idea, but when I got there you wouldn’t believe…they were still cleaning the camp up. And the smell, five miles before you even got there, you just couldn’t believe. A Polish fella took us in, and he took us over to the dog pens, and the dog’s were dead…. He said that if a prisoner would not tell what he [a German officer] wanted they’d feed him to those dogs.
We came back and went into a room which was a gas chamber…. They say there was no gas chamber in Dachau. There I was… I was in that room. They had two-hundred bodies in the room piled one upon another. The bodies had been taken out, but there were blood stains, and it was just horrible in there. It looked like they had maybe scratched with their nails or something…. They took everything from them, all their clothes and everything and just laid them in there, men, women, and children. They had the bones of these bodies ground up, pulverized, just like fertilizer.
We came back from there…and there was a place where they had a very big stone. There was a brown rope hanging down…and on that they hung or shot them. There were blood stains all over the ground there…tremendous blood all over. And ya know, another thing they had from all of the prison camps, they had over one-hundred box cars of women’s hair…. Well, ya know when I first came home nobody wanted to see them [pictures of the prison camps]. They said they didn’t believe it.
Just about three years ago…we were waiting for a trip. A man with several children came, real tall fella, and his wife. He had to wait too. I said, “I’m gonna go talk to him.” I said, “Sir, you’re from England.” He said, “Yes, High Wycombe, why?” I said, “I was stationed at High Wycombe.” He said, “You were? You were really one of those girls up there?” I said, “Yeah.” He put his arms around me and hugged me. He said, “Ya know what, I never had an opportunity to thank you for what you people did for us.”
At this point the interview ended. Julie Croft added, Mrs. Rita Strobel Geibel received many awards, including the Pallas Athens Medal (W.A.C.), the American Theater of Operations Medal, the Victory Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and various others.