Life in the 92nd Bomb Group

Charles S. Taylor

Flight Engineer, 407th Bomb Squadron

 

Click photo for identification.When I think of my time as a flight engineer/gunner on a B-17 crew in 1944, several things come to mind: crew training, our flight to Great Britian, life at Station 109, combat missions and passes to London. Our crew was put together at Salt Lake City in January 1944, although we didn't all meet until we got to the Replacement Training Unit (RTU) at Alexandria AAFB, Louisiana. We came from training in many places: Amarillo AAFB, Texas; Roswell AAFB, New Mexico; Lowry AAF, Colorado; and Kingman AAFB, Nevada. Although we were all young (late teens or early twenties), we varied greatly in our geographical, socio-economic, and educational backgrounds. Eight of us were new to the military but our bombadier had been an enlisted armorer and the ball turret gunner had recently been demoted from Staff Sergeant to PFC.

Ship flown on 8-14-44 mission to Stuttgart.  Last missions for Fairlamb (N) and Ross (B). For me, it was a big kick to fly on the four-engined bomber I had studied in A & E school, although they were well used older model planes. Our crew's previous flight experience was limited to trainer aircraft, except the pilot, Meredith C. Hagins, who had some B-17 time. We found that crew training was scheduled for 90 days; a new class started every 30 days. To spread the workload on aircraft and staff, our class of about 300 was divided into three groups who flew at staggered hours. Thus the planes were in the air most of the time that they were seviceable and weather permitted. Initially, we flew three five-hour missions each week, and spent the rest of duty time in ground school.

Fairlamb (N) and Faraday (W) At first, the training flights were crowded - two skeleton crews to a plane - and full of confusion. But we soon flew one crew to a plane and adjusted to the routine of mastering the many details involved in preparing for, accomplishing and debriefing a mission. The first phase of the course was mostly familiarization with the aircraft, crew member duties, the local flying area and the bombing range. The second phase introduced us to high altitude work, basics of formation flight and procedures for using the oxygen system. Our navigator was assigned to the crew in this phase, and each crew member practiced his duties on each flight. In the third phase, we got to fly a nearly new B-17G on a high altitude gunnery mission over the Gulf of Mexico. We were pleased with its improvements, such as enclosed waist windows, electronic supercharger control system, formation stick, chin turret and larger tail turret. We also flew a night mission that took us to Memphis, Dallas and back to Alexandria; most of us loafed on this one, but the navigator was busy the whole time.

When the departure date for the class ahead of us was moved up two weeks, we sudddenly realized we were in the senior section and the end of our time at the RTU was not far off. Although we knew we would be flying combat missions within a few weeks, we didn't think or talk much about it. We were too busy with the accelerated pace of ground school classes and practice flights. Soon our graduation date was moved from 16 April to 2 April, and we began preparations to ship out. On the day we boarded the troop train for Kearney AAFB, promotion orders for the enlisted crew members came out; flight engineer and radio operator became staff sergeants and the others sergeants. The officers all remained second lieutenants.

L to R Caudill (T), Faraday (W), Leachman (R)

 

We left RTU as a reasonably cohesive crew with about 165 hours flight time together. We were knowledgeable of basic crew duties and the latest version of the aircraft. Although we had spent a lot of time together in the air, we weren't buddies. We shared the motivation that most WW II servicemen had, but I felt some of us were more interested in having a good time than working at learning our crew duties. I realize now that our pilot probably didn't chide them because he expected them to do OK when we started flying combat - and they did.

We were at Kearney eight days waiting for a plane, test flying it, and processing for overseas. On 13 April we departed for Grenier AAFB, New Hampshire, where, due to weather over the Atlantic, we waited until 18 April to take off for Goose Bay, Labrador. There we had supper, refueled and left on a night flight for Reykjavik, Iceland. We spent the night of 20 April in a Quonset hut there and noticed the strong odor of dead fish. On 21 April we left on the last leg of 850 miles to Prestwick, Scotland, where (to our disappointment) our plane was taken from us for modificatons and assignment were needed.

We soon realized this was a wartime country with different customs. The toilet paper was brown and slick on one side; the mess hall was on British rations - tea instead of coffee among other differences. We found the British accent a little hard to understand at first. We also noticed the trains started very smoothly without a jerk and had outside doors on each compartment.

To our surprise we didn't go to our operational unit at this point, but were sent to the Combat Crew Replacement Center located at Stone for theatre briefings. Then the enlisted men went to The Wash for gunnery refresher training. In a 2 May letter home I noted this was the first time since 18 April we had plenty of hot water for showers. On 7 May we left by train, headed for Bedford where we were picked up by Army trucks and taken to Station 109 near Podington. There we settled in as members of the 407th Bombardment Squadron.

Our first combat mission as a crew was on 12 May to a synthetic oil plant at Merseberg. (Our pilot had already flown a mission or two as copilot with an experienced crew.) We didn't see any fighters, but there was flak - lazily floating puffs of black smoke that seemed harmless to us rookies. After the flight we found several holes in the plane and realized the shrapnel that went with the smoke was dangerous. By the time D-Day came, we had completed six missions. About this time they changed a tour from 25 missions to 35 with prorated credit for previous missions flown so our tour was 33 missions.

Click photo for identification Early in July we got a three-day pass to London where we stayed two nights at the Strand Palace Hotel. The bill for two in a nice rooom was 1 pound, sixteen shillings - about $10. We went sightseeing to the famous places we had heard about such as Piccadilly Circus, and took in a movie or two. On a later three-day pass to London we heard several V-1 "buzz bombs" and saw their impact.

Caudill (T) being dunked in the static pool after his last mission After our 28th mission we were sent to a "flak house" for a week of R & R. It was very casual; civilian clothes, no fixed schedule. Mmeal times were posted for our convenience. They took us to Leamington Spa for swimming and sight seeing at Stratford on Avon.

When our pilot completed his tour, we tossed him into the static water tank, a custom in the 407th. The rest of the crew finished up at various times from mid-August to mid-September, flying as spares on whichever crew needed them. The only member of our crew who was injured was the ball turret gunner, William C. Turner. It happened on the 20 June raid to a V-1 site near Pas de Calais. A small pice of flakWilliam C. Turner (BT) creased his forehead just enough to draw the blood, and he got a Purple Heart for it. He was killed on his last mission on 11 September to Merseberg (site of our first mission). This was the date I left Station 109, going to the Chorly replacement center. After several weeks delay, I boarded a troop ship and finally reached the Zone of the Interior on 17 October 17. What a thrill to pass by the Statue of Liberty!

The door to the EM barracks.  It was covered with the escape photos of those who had completed their tours.

 

 

Thanks to our fighter escorts and the earlierbomber crews who had decimated the German Air Force, we saw few enemy fighters and never fired a shot in anger. We did get a lot of flak hits. (I still have a small piece that just barely missed me.) We did have a close call or two, but all made it OK - except for our ball turret gunner. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life.