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|Tuesday, June 1, 1943:
Another good weather forecast, CAVU. By 1030 hours most of the planes with a clearance had taken to the air en route to Narsarssuak, Air Base, officially was known as Bluie West One. For a few miles off the east coast of Labrador floating ice could be seen. Then only open water as the planes continued climbing on course to reach a cruising altitude of 11, 500 feet. Off to the left crews could see the waters of the Davis Strait blending into gentle rolling waves of the North Atlantic Ocean. Looking ahead through windshields with the sun position at a high angle - there was no definite horizon, but rather a mosaic of sky, water and haze. Flight crews had been informed at their briefing that phenomena of this nature was to be expected in this most northern region.
It was on this seven hundred and seventy-six mile flight from Goose Bay, Labrador to BW-1 Greenland on a later date that the author and crew experienced a stomach twitching thrill. Flight Officer Donald E. Vincent was our pilot, and Flight Officer Robert C. Gragg was the co-pilot. Staff Sergeant Zephire Peterson was the bombardier-navigator. Staff Sergeants Leo Grus , and James D. Wilkie were the radioman and tail gunner respectively. I was known to the crew as, "C.P." - my job was that of aerial engineer.
I was all bundled up in a leather sheeplined flying suit, complete with sheeplined boots to ward off the cold in our unheated ship. I was seated in the navigators chair while flying at 11,500 feet. My first indication of a problem was hearing a loud argument going on between the two pilots, along with arm waving and vigorous finger pointing at the instrument panel. I went forward to the cockpit, just as the pilot told Gragg to get "C.P." up here. I tapped him on the shoulder saying, "Im here whats the problem?" He looked over at the co-pilot and said, "Dont you say a word, lets see what he has to say." Then he pointed to the oil temperature gauge. The needle on the right engine had just passed through the orange arc (caution indication) and was now into the lower red arc (danger indication) marking on the dial. The pilot snapped, "What do you think should be done?"
Quickly glancing at the cowl flap and oil cooler shutter position indicator, I noted the cowl flaps on the right engine were about one-third open, and the oil cooler shutter was in the full open position. A look at the oil temperature gauge showed it was now moving to the high end of the red arc. Something had to be done quickly or we would lose the right engine. I said, "Close the oil cooler shutter and the cowl flaps on the right engine." The co-pilot reached down near the bottom of the pilots pedestal with his left hand to activate the lever for the oil cooler shutter. The pilot shouted, "Dont do that its too damned hot already, the pilot turned to me and said, "What the hells the sense in doing that?"
I proceeded to explain very quickly that the engine was over heating because the hot oil coming out of the engine and going into the oil cooler was congealing and not recycling properly back to the engine. This was happening because of the wide open oil cooler shutter, the cold ram air was permitted to go directly through the unit, and was putting a quick chill on the oil. The reason for closing the cowl flaps was to trap as much hot air as possible inside the engine cowling to assist thawing the oil trapped in the oil cooler unit. The pilot said to Gragg, "Okay, close it up!"
We all looked intently at the oil temperature gauge which was centered just above the pilots pedestal on the instrument panel. The indicator needle was beginning to slowly arch downward into the mid-orange arc and still dropping. In a few minutes it was well into the normal green arc range on the instrument face. The pilot said, "Okay C.P." The co-pilot turned to me with a rather hurt look on his face saying, "I tried to tell him to close it, but he wouldnt believe me." I patted him on the back and said, "Your doing a fine job Bob, keep up the good work, we may get to England yet!" We all three laughed, and I returned to the navigator-radio compartment where I resumed the construction of a cheese and cracker sandwich from the contents of a K-Ration box.
Far below, ice floes traversed the North Atlantic as observed through occasional breaks in the cumulus clouds which appeared to be hovering just above the icy water. With two crewman in the nose section, and two more standing on the flight deck just behind the pilots - all eyes were searching ahead at something that resembled ice covered rocks. Minutes later those rocks transformed into mountains about 1,000 feet high on the southwestern tip of the Greenland coastline. Presently even higher mountains were spotted bounding the great icecap of Greenland which covers approximately eighty-five percent of the worlds largest island. The next order of business would be to locate the proper fjord by flying along the southern coast of Greenland until we could intersect the radio beam being projected and then turn left onto that course.
A low frequency radio range signal with an "A" antenna and an "N" antenna would guide the aircraft into the fjord by sending out two letters in Morse Code. One was Morse letter "A" (dit-dah) and the other was Morse letter "N" (dah-dit) which the pilot would hear in his headset. When flying into this airfield, the pilot would hear (dah-dit) "N" if he was to left of course. He would hear (dit-dah) "A" if he was to right of course. However the most desirable situation was to hear one continuous tone which would indicate the plane was directly on course to the station.
Flying into this place would test the mettle of any pilot - the approach to a landing was to fly a couple hundred feet below the top of the fjord to avoid any cross wind condition and continuing to fly for several miles inside a narrow fjord; then come in low over a harbor in which icebergs were floating. The touch down would be made on a steel mat covered runway that runs upgrade with a mountain at the far end! The steel matting generates a terrible clatter inside the cockpit via the open nose well doors when rolling along about 90 m.p.h. The airfield has only one runway and is surrounded on three sides by high rocky cliffs. All landings are made upgrade and all take offs are made downgrade. It is a foregone conclusion that precise scheduling is the key factor of successful operations at this particular air base.
Captain Fredrick (The Whip) Heward who was operations officer in the 554th Squadron brought up the rear guard as he settled in nicely for his landing. Crews climbed out of their planes and stretching to get the kinks out of legs and backs. This had been a four hour and forty-five minutes flight which had required the use of a 250 gallon bomb bay tank. That brought the total fuel capacity to 1212 gallons of high octane aviation fuel. The tanks had been installed in all aircraft back in the States prior to taking off on this adventure into the elusive "Wild Blue!" The air temperature here was about 35 degrees Fahrenheit as the fliers looked around this strange territory. This truly was a land of barren rock and ice with scattered patches of dark green moss, seemingly struggling for existence.
Wednesday, June 2, 1943:
The crews learned the reason for blackout curtains on all sleeping quarters windows, was certainly not to hide lights from the enemy! In Greenland at this time of year, daylight persists nearly around the clock. No planes would be flying out today because of the downgrade take off run requirement, wind conditions were critical concerning take off safety for this base. The prevailing wind was higher than the allowed tailwind limit of five m.p.h. The entire echelon would be idle this day!
Not so for the ground echelon however, the Queen Elizabeth had arrived at Gourock, Scotland, which is situated deep in the Firth of Clyde near the City of Glasgow. With 20,000 troops onboard, the 386th Group had to wait its turn, which finally came at 2040 hours. They were transported from ship to dock by lighters. The men loaded down with helmets, bags, and carbines were at last assembled on the dock where they were served coffee and doughnuts by smiling Scottish girls working for the American Red Cross. All during this time a Scottish band played most enthusiastically nearby. Shortly the Group was loaded on a train which had backed onto the dock, finally at 2215 hours it pulled out slowly. Surprisingly it was still daylight at this late hour, nobody had ever heard of the British double summertime! Some looked out of their train windows and others dozed as the trail rattled on through the night - destination, somewhere in England.
Thursday, June 3, 1943:
Morning found the train chugging steadily through the picturesque English countryside, and occasionally sounding its shrill steam whistle. Short stops were made at Lancaster and York where English women handed out small cakes and coffee to the always hungry young Americans. Eventually the train swung away from the main line and was now rolling along on a single track road through lovely rich green country. Around mid afternoon the train ground to a halt at a small railroad station known as Eccles Road. Word spread fast throughout the train - this is it!
Piling out of the railway carriages the men were quickly lined up in formation, then marched down a small narrow country road to the Groups new home which was located in Snetterton Heath, also known as Station 138. It was where the Group personnel were first introduced to a British secret weapon - the Nissen Hut! The huts were about forty-five feet long and approximately twelve feet high, made of corrugated metal. Imagine if you will, the top three-quarters of a sewer pipe laying on its side, with the ends closed in with brick or wood construction. It had two windows and a door at each end. Located on a concrete floor about half way into the hut was a cylindrical stove approximately thirty inches high and about fifteen inches in diameter. A stove pipe went straight up and out through the roof. The major output for this contrivance was the delivery of dense smoke, both inside and outside the hut. It became obvious to most, that this was a German invention, and probably supplied by them as well!
Meanwhile back at BW-1 Greenland many crews had received weather clearance and were lining up for take off. Captains Caney and Heward, also Lieutenant E.E. Curran all led flights on the seven hundred fifty mile hop to Meeks Field, Iceland. The over water flight was fairly easy for them, however their landing was accomplished in very poor visibility. Another crew was having a problem with their aircraft, thus delaying their departure. Squadron Line Chiefs and some maintenance crew chiefs were flying with a number of flight crews. Three of them were Master Sergeant Leo Duda along with Tech Sergeants Fredrick Danker and Robert Tuttle, worked feverishly to clear up a pesky intermittent electrical fault in the left engine of a ship named "BOOMERANG."
Captain Ben Ostlind was assigned to lead a flight of 552nd Squadron planes to Iceland, the weather appeared to alright as they took off and flew out of the fjord at BW-1. Major Charles Lockhart, 552nd Squadron Commander, recalled a very tragic occurrence which happened after a few crews had left Bluie West 1, Greenland: A number of 386th aircraft were waiting for a weather clearance to fly the next leg to Keflavik, Iceland. Three or four of our 552nd planes were ready to go and I sent them out when we got clearance. The ill fated plane developed trouble in one engine when an oil cooler became frozen about half way between Greenland and Iceland. They had to feather that propeller, and of course cut that engine. They began to lose altitude and decided to dump all excess arctic gear that was stored in the bomb bay, even the waist guns. The crew opened the bomb bay doors, but the baggage got caught with the bomb bay doors. They tried to clear it by use of the emergency air bottle system, but that only compounded the problem for the plane called, "STINGRAY."
The crew tried to close the doors but to no avail, they were jammed in the open position. with all that extra drag and a dead engine - the plane was doomed, and drifted lower to disappear into the clouds below. First Lieutenant G.J. Newton, Jr. was the pilot, his windshield iced over as the ship descended through a cloud layer, thus making a very bad situation even worse! Voice contact was maintained between his crew and the other planes in the flight. It is believed Captain Ostlind and Flight Officer John Albers were flying two of the planes in communication with the stricken aircraft. The ill fortuned crew called for Air-Sea-Rescue help, but whatever allied ships were patrolling the area were too far away to rescue the fliers. Presumably they ditched their aircraft in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic and were lost, it was a sad occurrence indeed! End of Major Lockharts statement.
Friday, June 4, 1943:
Major Beaty was off early leading a number of 555th Squadron planes from Iceland to Prestwick, Scotland. Lieutenant Richard Sleins expert navigation guided Captain Thomas Ramsey and his flight of 554th Squadron planes safely from Greenland to Iceland. The new arrivals were saddened upon learning about Lieutenant Newton and his crew being lost yesterday! While school boys in geography class we were told that Iceland was an island located just below the Arctic Circle, was volcanic in origin with geysers and hot springs - to a degree reminiscent of our Yellowstone National Park. Standing here on this treeless assortment of lava and rock brings to mind rather the true meaning of drab! While waiting out the passage of a slow moving weather front, some crew members visited the Capitol City of Reykjavik along with nearby Keflavik. The people of Iceland, generally speaking were not very cordial toward the Americans, their political stance seemed to be that of pro German.
Saturday, June 5, 1943:
Major Beaty and others landed their Marauders at Snetterton Heath, England; finally being reunited with the ground echelon after a separation of thirty-nine days. Group members were given a security lecture, after which they were permitted to write or wire their relatives in the U.S.A. Ground crews took on a new job, guarding over the B-26s, this was in addition to their regular line duties.
Sunday, June 6, 1943:
Back in Iceland Captain Ramseys flight was behind schedule and were anxious to leave, and ready to except whatever weather clearance was offered. What they received was definitely not a bargain - a flight level of 200 feet above the white capped waves of the North Atlantic, or climb up through some 10,000 feet of cloud formations with probable icing conditions, so they could fly in the clear at 11,000 feet. Most pilots chose the 200 foot level, after all most of their B-26 training was done at tree top level and low over the Gulf Of Mexico!
Monday, June 7, 1943:
More B-26s arrived in Scotland, it was a beautiful sight from the air with castles dotting the landscape for many miles in all directions. Some of the medieval structures of stone appeared to setting at the very edge of steep rocky cliffs. Late arriving crews would spend the night at Prestwick. Early morning would find them winging their way south to the new base in England.
Tuesday, June 8, 1943:
English money, such as pound notes, ten shilling notes, along with half crowns and shilling coins became the topic of discussion at Snetterton Heath as more B-26s arrived after their long overseas flight. Rationing was another rather rude surprise in store for the crews. Each man was issued a ration card for purchasing items at the post exchange (PX) on a weekly basis. They would be punched at time of purchase for such things as tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, matches, candy and bar soap. For instance, one could buy seven packs of cigarettes or fourteen cigars, two bars of candy and two bars of soap.
Morale of the newly arrived flight crews took a nose dive when they heard about the 322nd Bomb Group. That particular outfit had sent out eleven ships on a low level mission to Holland on May 17th. One of the planes aborted with a technical problem and returned to base, the other ten ships went on in for the attack. All of them were shot down, mostly by flak, and a few by German fighter planes. The author learned of that mission while on a three day stopover in Chorley, England. The B-17 crew who flew a ship named, "SOUTHERN COMFORT" on twenty-five missions was on its way back to America. They proceeded to tell all that they knew about that mission - then adding that they thought I should transfer over to B-17s because I would have a very short air combat life flying in Martin B-26s!
A party of 386th Group Officers had driven over to another base known as Boxted, located near Colchester. The purpose was an inspection tour of the airdrome facilities there. On the return trip to Snetterton Heath their staff car being driven by an enlisted man with an officer riding in front was involved in an accident. The car apparently left the road and struck a tree. Both men in the front seat were killed. Captain Hankey, Major Mellen, and Group Communications Officer Elliott Levin were riding in the back seat. Mellen was killed instantly, Hankey and Levin although knocked around a bit, did manage to survive the wreck.
Wednesday, June 9, 1943:
Group personnel liked this airbase, no mud, nice green grass, and lots of pavement, they kept saying to each other, this is too good to be true! They were absolutely correct when orders were received to pack up, the Group was moving to a place called Boxted.
Thursday, June 10, 1943:
Group units departed Snetterton Heath at 0800 hours by rail, truck convoy, and by plane. The sun was shinning brightly in the morning with no rain in the forecast, later in the day the temperature became hot. The ground echelon arrived at Boxted, Essex, England, AAF Station 150 at 1145 hours. Some of the 555th Squadron ground echelon ate a "C" Ration meal with their air echelon while all sat on the ground.
Chester P. Klier