I visited some of the boys who had been blasting out our invasion path on the Continent of Europe. For nearly a year they had been hammering at the wall of defense the Germans had thrown up. They were a squadron of B-26 Marauder bombers -representative of the mighty weight of the tactical bombers of the Ninth Air Force. I went to spend a few days with them because I wanted to get a taste of the pre-invasion assault from the air standpoint before we got a mouthful of the invasion proper from the ground.
The way I happened to go to that certain squadron was one of those things. One night in London I was sitting at a table with some friends in a public house when two boys in uniform leaned over from the next table and asked if I wasn't So-and-so.
I said yes, whereupon we got to talking and then we got to be pals and eventually we adjourned from one place to another, as Damon Runyon would say, and kept on adjourning throughout the evening, and a good time was had by all.
Those boys were B-26 bombardiers, and in the course of the evening's events they asked if I wouldn't come and live with their squadron awhile. Being nothing if not accommodating, I said sure, why not? The two boys were Lieutenants Lindsey Greene from San Francisco, and Jack Arnold from East St. Louis, Illinois. Being redheaded, Lieutenant Arnold went by the name of "Red Dog."
Their airdrome was a lovely place. Everything around it was wonderfully green, as was all England then. The station was huge, and the personnel was scattered for a couple of miles, housed in steel Nissen huts and low concrete barracks. The living quarters were spread through an old grove of giant shade trees. You walked from one barracks to another under elms and chestnuts, big-trunked and wide-branched, and it gave you a feeling of beautiful peace and contentment. The huts and barracks were painted green and everything blended together.
The station was a permanent one, and comfortable. Our B-26 group had been at that field ever since arriving overseas nearly a year before.
Within cycling or hitchhiking distance were several English villages the lovely kind you read about in books-and our fliers had come to know them intimately. They liked the people, and I'm sure the people liked them.
There was more of understanding and harmony between those fliers and the local people of their neighborhood than in any other outfit I had ever seen. If you don't believe it, listen to this-fifteen of the boys from just one squadron had married English girls.
The boys said it was the best squadron in England. Nine out of ten squadrons, or infantry companies, or quartermaster battalions, or whatever, will say the same thing about themselves. It is a good omen when they talk like that.
The station seemed to me to have about the finest spirit I had run onto in our Army. It was due, I think, largely to the fact that the whole organization had been made into a real team. The boys didn't especially hate the Germans, and they certainly didn't like war, yet they understood that the only way out of the war was to fight our way out, and they did it willingly and with spirit and all together.
The commander of the group was Colonel Wilson R. Wood of Chico, Texas. Five years before he had been an enlisted man. There, at twenty-five, he was a full colonel. He was a steady, human person and he had what it takes to blend thousands of men into a driving unit.
The job of the B-26s was several fold. For one thing, they had to rid upper France and the Low Countries of German fighters as far as possible, to clear the way for our heavy bombers on their long trips into Germany. They had done this not so much by bombing airdromes, which can be immediately repaired, as by blasting the enemy's reserve supply of planes, engines and propellers.
Their second job was to disrupt the enemy's supply system. As the invasion neared, much of their work was on railroad marshaling yards, and along with A-20s and fighter bombers they had succeeded to a point where British papers said Germany could not maintain a western front by rail.
And, third, they constantly worked on the enemy's military installations along the Channel coast. They felt that they had done a good job. I told them if they hadn't I was going to be plenty sore at them some fine day, because I might be in the vicinity and if there was anything that made me sick at the stomach it was an enemy military installation in good working order.
The B-26 is a bomber that is very fast and carries a two-ton bomb load. In its early stages it had a bad name - it was a "hot" plane which took great skill to fly and killed more people in training than it did in combat.
But the B-26 lived down the bad name. The boys said they wouldn't fly in anything else. They liked it because it could take quick and violent evasive action when the flak was bothersome, and because it could run pretty well from fighters.
Its record in England was excellent. Bombing accuracy had been high and losses had been extremely low. And as for accidents-the thing that cursed the plane in its early days -they had been practically nonexistent.
The boys so convinced me of the B-26's invulnerability that I took my courage in hand and went on a trip with them. They got us up at two in the morning. Boy, it was cold getting out of our cots and into our clothes. We had gone to bed about eleven, but I hadn't got to sleep. All night long the sky above us was full of the drone of planes-the RAF passing over on its nightly raids.
"Chief" Collins, the pilot, "Red Dog" Arnold, the bombardier, and I were the only ones in our but who had to get up. We jumped into our clothes, grabbed towels and ran out to the washhouse for a quick dash of cold water on our faces. The moon was brilliant and we needed no flashlights.
Red Dog gave me an extra pair of long drawers to put on. Chief gave me his combat pants, as I had given mine away in Italy. I also put on extra sweaters and a mackinaw.
Then we walked through the moonlight under the trees to the mess hall. It was only 2:30 A.M., but we ate breakfast before the take-off. And we had two real fried eggs too. It was almost worth getting up for. We drove out to the field in jeep. Some of the boys rode their bicycles.
There were a couple of hundred crew men. At the field we went into a big room, brightly lighted, and sat on benches for the briefing. The briefing lasted almost an hour. Everything was explained in detail-how we would take off, how we would rendezvous in the dark, where we would make the turn toward our target.
Then we went to the locker room and got our gear. Red Dog got me a pair of flying boots, a Mae West life preserver, a parachute and a set of earphones. We got into the jeep again and rode out to the plane. It was still half an hour before take-off time. The moon had gone out and it was very dark.
We stood around talking with the ground crew. Finally, ten minutes ahead of time we got into the plane. One of the boys boosted me up through a hatch in the bottom of the plane, for it was high, and with so many clothes I could hardly move.
For the take-off, I sat back in the radio compartment on some parachutes. Red Dog was the only one of the crew who put on his chute. He said I didn't need to wear mine.
We were running light, and it didn't take long to get off the ground. I had never been in a B-26 before. The engines seemed to make a terrific clatter. There were runway markers, and I could see them whiz past the window as we roared down the field. A flame about a foot long shot out of the exhausts and it worried me at first, but finally I decided that was the way it was supposed to be.
It's a ticklish business assembling scores of planes into formation at night. Here is how they do it:
We took off one at a time, about thirty seconds apart. Each plane flew straight ahead for four and a half minutes, climbing at a certain rate all the time. Then it turned right around and flew straight back for five minutes. Then it turned once again, heading in the original direction.
By this time we were up around four thousand feet. We had not seen any of the other planes.
The flight leader had said he would shoot flares from his plane frequently so the others could spot him if they got lost. Red Dog was half turned around, talking to me, when the first two flares split the sky ahead of us. He just caught them out of the corner of his eye, and he almost jumped out of his seat. He had forgotten about the flares and thought they were the running lights of the plane ahead of us and that we were about to collide.
"I haven't been so scared in months," he said.
The leader kept shooting flares, which flashed for a few moments and then went out. But we really didn't need them. For we were right on his tail, just where we should have been, and everybody else was in place too. It was a beautiful piece of precision grouping in the dark.
As we caught up to within half a mile or so we could finally see the running lights of other planes, and then the dark shapes of grouped planes ahead silhouetted against a faintly lightening sky. Finally we were in position, flying almost wing to wing, there in the English night.
At twelve thousand feet up daylight comes before it does on the ground. While we could now see each other plainly, things were still darkly indistinct in England, far below us.
Now and then a light would flash on the ground - some kind of marker beacon for us. We passed over some airdromes with their runway lights still on. Far in the distance we could see one lone white light-probably a window some early-rising farmer had forgotten to black out.
Red Dog, the bombardier, was sitting in the copilot's seat, since we weren't carrying a copilot. The boys got me a tin box to sit on right behind him so I could get a better view. The sunrise was red and beautiful, and he kept pointing and remarking about it. Chief Collins, the pilot, got out some cigarettes and we all lit up except Red Dog, who didn't smoke.
We climbed higher, and at a certain place the whole group of B-26s made a turn and headed for the target. This wasn't a mission over enemy territory, and there was no danger to it.
As we neared the target Red Dog crawled forward through a little opening into the nose, where the bombardier usually sits. The entire nose of a B-26 is Plexiglas, and a man can see straight down, up and all around. Arnold motioned for me to come up with him.
I squeezed into the tiny compartment. There was barely room for the two of us. The motors made less noise up there. By now daylight had come and everything below was clear and spectacular.
I stayed in the nose until we were well on the way home, and then crawled back and sat in the copilot's seat. The sun came out, the air was smooth, and it was wonderful flying over England so early in the morning.
Down below, the country was green, moist and enchanting in the warmth of the early dawn. Early morning trains left rigidly straight trails of white smoke for a mile behind them. Now and then we would see a military convoy, but mostly the highways were empty and lonesome looking. The average man wasn't out of bed yet.
Somehow a person always feels good being up early in the morning, feels a little ahead of the rest of the world and a little egotistical about it.
We lost altitude gradually, and kept clearing our ears by opening our mouths. Gradually it got warmer and warmer. Chief talked now and then on the interphone to the rest of the crew. Other times I would notice his mouth working, and I think he must have been singing to himself. Two or three times he leaned over and remarked on what an unusually nice formation they were flying that morning.
Once Red Dog turned and yelled back through the little door, "Did you see that supply dump we just passed? Biggest damn thing I ever saw in my life."
Suddenly I remembered I had seen only four men in our crew, when I knew there were supposed to be five. I asked one of the gunners about it. He said, "Oh, Pruitt, he's the tail gunner. He's back there. He's probably sound asleep."
We came back over our home airdrome, peeled off one by one, and landed. Red Dog stayed up in the nose during the landing, so I stayed in the copilot's seat. Landing is about the most dangerous part of flying, yet it's the one sensation I love most, especially when riding up front.
Chief put the big plane down so easily we hardly knew when the wheels touched. I was shocked to learn later that we landed at the frightening speed of more than a hundred miles an hour.
We sat in the plane for a couple of minutes while Chief filled out some reports, then opened the hatch in the floor and dropped out. I was the first one to hit the ground. The second man out looked at me, startled-like, and said, "Good Lord, I didn't know you were with us. I'm the tail gunner. I recognize you from your picture, but I didn't know you were along. I've been asleep most of the trip."
That was Sergeant Pruitt.
A jeep carried us back to the locker room where we had left our gear. Then we headed for the mess hall.
"We'll have another breakfast now," Chief said.
It was just 7:30. So for the second time in five hours we ate breakfast. Had real eggs again, too.
"It's a tough war," one of the boys laughed. But nobody is qualified to joke like that who hasn't been scores of times across the Channel coast, in that other world of fighters and flak. And those boys all had. It was good to be with them.
The B-26 squadron lived exceedingly well for wartime. They realized it, and were full of appreciation. I almost never heard an airman griping about things around there.
It was an old station, and well established. Our men were comfortably housed and wonderfully fed. The officers had a club of their own, with a bar and a lounge room, and the Red Cross provided a big club right on the station for the enlisted men.
There were all kinds of outdoor games, such as baseball, badminton, volleyball, tennis, and even golf at a nearby town. One of the pilots came back from golfing and said, "I don't know what they charged me a greens fee for, I was never anywhere near the greens." At first I lived with the younger officers of the squadron, then I moved over with the enlisted gunners, radiomen, and flight engineers. They lived only a little differently. And the line between officers and enlisted men among the combat crews was so fine that I was barely aware of any difference after a few days' acquaintance with them.
First I'll try to tell you how the officers lived. I stayed in the but of my friends Lieutenants Lindsey Greene and Jack Arnold. There was usually a spare cot in any hut, for there was almost always one man away on leave. Their barracks was a curved steel Nissen hut, with doors and windows at each end but none along the sides. The floor was bare concrete. Eight men lived in the hut. Three were pilots, the others bombardiers and navigators. One was a captain, the others were lieutenants.
The boys slept on black steel cots with cheap mattresses. They had rough white sheets and Army blankets. They were all wearing summer underwear then, and they slept in it. When the last one went to bed he turned out the light and opened one door for ventilation. Of course until the lights were out the but had to be blacked out.
Each cot had a bed lamp rigged over it, with a shade made from an empty fruit-juice can. The boys had a few bureaus and tables they bought or dug up from somewhere. On the tables were pictures of their girls and parents, and on the corrugated steel walls they had pasted pin-up girls from Yank and other magazines.
In the center of the but was a rectangular stove made of two steel boxes welded together. They burned wood or coal in it, and it threw out terrific heat. In front of the stove was a settee big enough for three people, and behind the stove was a deep chair. Both settee and chair were made by nailing small tree limbs together. The boys did it themselves.
In the top of the hut, when the lights went out, I could see two holes with moonlight streaming through. Somebody shot his .45 one night, just out of exuberance. Somebody else then bet he could put a bullet right through that hole. He lost his bet, which accounted for the other hole.
The latrines and washbasins were in a separate building about fifty yards from the hut. The boys and their mechanics had built a small shower room out of packing boxes and rigged up a tank for heating water. They were proud of it, and they took plenty of baths.
All around my but were similar ones, connected by concrete or cinder paths. The one next door was about the fanciest. Its name was Piccadilly Palace, and it had a pretty sign over the door saying so. In that but the boys had built a real brick fireplace, with a mantel and everything.
In there the biggest poker game was usually going. A sign on the front of the but said, "Poker Seats by Reservation Only." On the other side of the door was another sign saying, "Robin Hood Slept Here." They put that up when they first arrived because somebody told them the station was in Sherwood Forest. They found out later they were a long way from Sherwood Forest but they left the sign up anyhow.
It was a good station. The boys were warm, clean, well fed; their life was dangerous and not very romantic to them, and between missions they got homesick and sometimes bored. But even so they had a pretty good time with their live young spirits and they were grateful that they could live as well and have as much pleasure as they did have. For they knew that anything good in wartime is just that much velvet.
"My crew" of two officers and three enlisted men had been flying together as a team since before leaving America more than a year before. Every one of them was then far beyond his allotted number of combat missions. Every one of them was perfectly willing to work through another complete tour of missions if he could just go home for a month. I believe the same thing was true of almost everybody at that station. And it was a new experience for me, because most of the combat men I had been with before wanted to feel finished forever when they went home.
Every one of the crew had the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, with clusters. They had had flak through their plane numerous times, but none of them had ever been hit. They expected it to be rough when the invasion started, but they were anxious to get it over with.
They had usually flown one mission a day over France, with occasionally two as the tempo of the spring bombings increased. But during the invasion they knew they would probably be flying three and sometimes four missions a day. They would be in the air before daylight and would get home from their last mission after dark. They would go for days and maybe weeks in a frenzied routine, eating hurriedly between missions, snatching a few hours of weary sleep at night, and being up and at it again hours before daylight to shuttle back and forth across the Channel. They and thousands of others like them.
Fighting purely an air war-as they had been doing up to then-was in some ways so routine that it was like running a big business.
Usually a B-26 crew man "worked" only about two hours a day. He returned to a life that was pretty close to a normal one. There was no ground war to confuse him or disturb him or even inspire him with its horror. His war was highly technical, highly organized, and in a way somewhat academic.
Because of this it was easy to get bored. An air crew man had lots of spare time on his hands. Neither the officers nor the enlisted fliers had any duties whatever other than flying. When not flying they either loafed around their own huts, writing letters or playing poker or just sitting in front of the fire talking, or else they took leave for a few hours and went to the nearby villages. They could go to dances or sit in the local pubs and talk.
And every two weeks they got two days' leave. That again was something new to us who had been in the Mediterranean. Down there fliers did get leave to go to rest camps, and even to town once in a while if there was a town, but there was nothing regular or automatic about it. Those boys in England got their two days' leave twice a month just like clockwork. They could do anything they wanted with it.
Most of them went to London. Others went to nearby cities where they had made acquaintances. They went to dances and night clubs and shows. They painted the town and blew off steam as any active man who lives dangerously must do now and then. They made friends among the British people, and they looked up those same friends on the next trip to town.
They did a thousand and one things on their leave, and it did them good. Also, it gradually created an understanding between the two peoples, a conviction that the other fellow was all right in his own peculiar way.
After a certain number of missions a crew was usually given two weeks' leave. Most of them spent it traveling. Our fliers often toured Scotland on those leaves. It was amazing the number of men who had been to Edinburgh and loved the place. They had visited Wales and North Ireland and the rugged southwestern coast, and they knew the Midlands and the little towns of England.
Those two-week leaves didn't substitute in the fliers' minds for a trip back to America. That was all they lived for. That was what they talked about most of the time.
A goal is what anyone overseas needs-a definite time limit to shoot for. Naturally it wasn't possible at that time to send many people home, and the fliers appreciated and accepted that fact. But once the invasion was made and the first period of furious intensity had passed, our veteran fliers hoped to start going home in greater numbers.
Lieutenant Chief Collins was what is known as a "hot pilot." He used to be a fighter pilot, and he handled his Marauder bomber as though it were a fighter. He was daring, and everybody called him a "character," but his crew had a fanatical faith in him.
Chief was addicted to violent evasive action when they were in flak, and the boys liked that because it made them harder to hit. When they finished their allotted number of missions-which used to give them an automatic trip to America, but didn't any more-Chief buzzed the home field in celebration of their achievement.
He got that old B-26 wound up in a steep glide, came booming down at the runway, leveled off a foot above the ground and went screaming across the field at 250 miles an hour-only a foot above the ground all the way. And at the same time he shot out all the red flares he had in the plane. They said it looked like a Christmas tree flying down the runway.
Chief used to be a clerk with the Aetna Life Insurance Company, back in his home town of Hartford, Connecticut. He was twenty-five and didn't know whether he would go back to the insurance job or not after the war. He said it depended on how much they offered him.
Lieutenant Red Dog Arnold was only twenty-two, although he seemed much older to me. He had enlisted in the Army almost four years before, when he was just out of high school. He was an infantryman for a year and a half before he finally went to bombardier school and got wings for his chest and bars for his shoulders.
He figured that as a bombardier he had killed thousands of Germans, and he thought it was an excellent profession. He said his finest bombing experience was when they missed the target one day and quite accidentally hit a barracks full of German troops and killed hundreds of them.
Red Dog was friendly and gay and yet he was a fundamentally serious man who took the war to heart. The enlisted men of the crew said that he wasn't afraid of anything, and that the same was true of Chief Collins. They were a cool pair, yet both as hospitable and friendly as you could imagine.
The plane's engineer-gunner was Sergeant Eugene Gaines from New Orleans. He married a British girl, and they had a little apartment in a town eight miles from the field. Every evening Gaines rode his bicycle home, stayed till about midnight, then rode back to the airdrome. For he never knew when he might be routed out at 2 A.M. on an early mission, and he had to be on hand. It took him about forty-five minutes to ride the eight miles, and he had made the round trip nightly all winter, in the blackout and through indescribable storms. Such is the course of love.
Gaines was a quiet and sincere young man of twenty-four. He was a carpenter before the war, and he figured that would be a pretty good trade to stick to after the war. But if a depression should come he had an ace in the hole. He owned a farm at Pearl River, Louisiana, and he figured that with a farm in the background he could always be safe and independent.
Gaines wore a plain wedding ring on his left hand. I noticed that a lot of the married soldiers wore wedding rings.
In flight it was Gaines's job to watch the engine temperatures and pressures and to help with the gadgets during landings and take-offs. As soon as they reached the other side of the Channel he went back and took over the top turret gun. He had shot at a few planes but never knocked one down.
The radioman-gunner was Sergeant John Siebert from Charlestown, Massachusetts. He had learned to fly before the war, although he was only twenty-three. He had about eight hundred hours in the air as pilot. Yet because of one defective eye he couldn't get into cadet school. He had had two years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he hoped to go back and finish after the war.
Siebert too was quiet and sincere. His closest escape was when his waist gun was shot right out of his hand. The thing suddenly just wasn't there. Yet he didn't get a scratch.
Sergeant Kermit Pruitt, the tail gunner, was an old cowboy from Arizona-looked like one, acted like one, talked like one. But he was no hillbilly in the head.
Pruitt was the talking kind. He talked and sang on the slightest provocation. He liked old cowboy songs. They said that every once in a while he would start singing some cowboy song over the interphone while they were actually on the bomb run, and the pilot would have to yell at him to shut up.
He liked to tell stories about cowpokes in Arizona. He told one day about an old cowboy who went to the city and registered at a hotel for the first time in his life. The clerk asked if he wanted a room with running water, and the cowboy yelled, "Hell, no What do you think I am, a trout?"
Pruitt drove the rest of the crew crazy by shooting his tail gun at the most unexpected times. In more than fifty missions he had never yet seen an enemy plane to shoot at, so he would break the monotony by shooting at gun emplacements and flak ships two miles below. Those sudden blasts scared the wits our of the rest of the crew, and Pruitt then would catch a little brimstone over the interphone from the pilot.
But that didn't faze him, or impair his affection for his pilot. Pruitt said he just shopped around in the Army till he found a pilot that suited him. Back in America he "missed" a couple of trains to avoid going overseas with an outfit he didn't like. He said his hunch proved right, for his entire old crew in that outfit were killed on their first mission.
Finally he got a chance to go with the B-26s. Pilot Chief Collins was a wild man then, and nearly everybody was afraid to ride with him. But when Pruitt saw him handle a plane he said to himself, "There's my man." So he got on Chief's crew, and he stayed on it. He said he wouldn't think of flying with anybody else.
Pruitt was thin, not much bigger than me, and he usually wore coveralls which made him look even thinner: He went around poking his head out from hunched-up shoulders with a quizzical half grin on his face. He sure did enjoy living.
Pleasant Valley, Arizona, was Pruitt's home diggings. He was thirty, and married to a beautiful girl who was part French and 1/32 Indian. On Christmas Day, 1943, they were blessed with an heir. Pruitt had a pocketbookful of pictures of his wife and offspring, and he showed them every few minutes. If I went out of the room and came back five minutes later, he showed me the pictures again.
I was sleeping near Pruitt one night when the crews were awakened at 2 A.M. for an early mission. It was funny to see them come out of bed. Not a soul moved a muscle for about five minutes, and then they all suddenly came out as though shot from a gun.
Pruitt always started talking as soon as he was awake. On this particular morning he said, "When the war's over I'm gonna get me an Apache Indian to work for me. I'm gonna tell him to get me up at two o'clock in the morning, and when he comes in I'm gonna take my .45 and kill the s.o.b."
The three sergeants in my crew sort of took me under their wing and we ran around together for two or three days. One night they slicked all up, put on their dress uniforms with all their sergeants' stripes and their silver wings and all their ribbons, and we went to a nearby town to a singing concert. Then we went into the back room of the local pub and sat around a big round table with two battered old British women-very cheerful and pleasant-who were drinking beer. They giggled when Pruitt told stories of his escapades as a cowboy and of his trips to London on leave.
There were about twenty flying sergeants in the same barracks with my pals. They lived about the same as the officers, except that they were more crowded and they didn't have settees around their stove or shelves for their stuff. But they had the same pin-up girls, the same flying talk, the same poker game, and the same guys in bed getting some daytime shuteye while bedlam went on around them.
I got to know all those flying sergeants and I couldn't help being struck by what a swell bunch the p were. All of them were sort of diffident at first, but they opened up when I had known them for a little while and treated me like a king. They told me their troubles and their fears and their ambitions, and they wanted so much for me to have a good time while I was with them.
With those boys, as with nearly all the specialized groups of soldiers I have been with, their deep sincerity and their concern about their future were apparent. They couldn't put into words what they were fighting for, but they knew it had to be done and almost invariably they considered themselves fortunate to be living well and fighting the enemy from the air instead of on the ground. But home, and what would be their fate in the postwar world, was always in the back of their minds, and every one of them had some kind of plan laid.
Sergeant Phil Scheier was a radio gunner. That is, he operated the radio of his B-26 bomber when it needed operating, and when over enemy territory he switched to one of the plane's machine guns.
It was hard to think of Sergeant Scheier as a tough gunner. In fact it was hard to think of him as an enlisted man. He was what you would call the "officer type"-he would have seemed more natural with a major's leaves on his shoulders than a sergeant's stripes on his arms. But he didn't feel that way about it. "I'm the only satisfied soldier in the Army," he said. "I've found a home in the Army. I like what I'm doing, and I wouldn't trade my job for any other in the Army."
Not that he intended to stay in after the war. He was twenty-eight, but he intended to go to college as soon as he got out of uniform. He had been a radio script writer for several years but he wanted to go to Columbia School of Journalism and learn how to be a big fascinating newspaperman like me.
Sergeant Scheier's home was in Richmond, Staten Island. Like the others he had a DFC and an Air Medal with clusters.
"When I won a Boy Scout medal once they got out the band and had a big celebration," he said. "But when you get the DFC you just sign a paper and a guy hands it to you as though it was nothing."
Later, when I mentioned that I would like to put that remark in my column, Sergeant Scheier laughed and said, "Oh, I just made that up. I never was a Boy Scout."
Sergeant Kenneth Brown, of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, was one of two men in my barracks who had the Purple Heart. He had been hit in the back and arm by flak several months before. He was a good-natured guy, and he had the next war figured out.
He wasn't planning to go hide in a cave or on a desert island, as so many threatened to do. He thought he had a better way. He said the minute the war started he was going to get a sand table and start making humps and valleys and drawing lines in the sand. He figured that would automatically make him a general and then he'd be all right.
Sergeant Kenneth Hackett used to work at the Martin plant near Baltimore, making B-26 bombers. He was thirty-four, and he had supposed that if he ever got into the Army he would be put in some backwash job far removed from combat. "I sure never figured when I was helping to build these planes that someday I'd be flying over France in one of them as a radio-gunner," he said. But there he was, with half his allotted missions already run off.
Sergeant Hackett's home was in North Miami. In fact his father was chief of police in that section. But the sergeant's wife and daughter were in Baltimore.
Hackett showed me a snapshot of his daughter Theda sitting on the tender of their automobile. He said -she was twelve, and I thought he was kidding. She seemed so grown-up that I thought she must be his sweetheart instead of his daughter. But I was convinced when the other boys chimed in and said, "Tell him about the lipstick."
It seems Theda wrote her daddy that all the other girls her age were using rouge and lipstick and was it all right if she did too.
Well, it wasn't all right. Sergeant Hackett said maybe he was old-fashioned but he sent word back to Theda that if she started using lipstick at her age he'd skin her alive when he got back, or words to that effect. And he didn't take time to write it in a letter. He sent it by full rate cablegram.
Sergeant Howard Hanson was acting first sergeant of the squadron. He was the guy who ran the show and routed people out of bed and handed out demerits and bawled people out. Also, he was an engineer-gunner. He had long since flown past his allotted number of combat missions, and he . was still flying.
Sergeant Hanson was thirty-seven and therefore automatically known in the Army as Pappy. Any soldier over thirty-five is almost always called Pop or Pappy. Sergeant Hanson didn't care. He liked his work and had a job to do and wanted to get it done. "I know what I'm fighting for," he said. "Here's what." And he handed me a snapshot of his family-wife, girl, and boy. The girl was almost grown and the boy was in the uniform of a military school. Hanson's home was at 6ro West Roth Street, Topeka, Kansas.
Pappy used to be in the motor freight business before the war. I suppose in a way you could say he was still in the motor freight business. Kind of ticklish freight, though.
Sergeant Walter Hassinger was from Hutchinson, Kansas. He was twenty-nine, and in a way the most remarkable man at the station. In the first place, he was a radio-gunner who had more missions under his belt than any other crew member there. In the second place, they said he had contributed more to satisfied living and general morale than anybody else.
Hassinger spent $400 of his own money creating a little private radio station and hooking it by loudspeakers into barracks all over the place. Finally his station was heard by seventeen hundred men. Over this station he rebroadcast news bulletins, repeated orders and instructions that came from headquarters, played phonograph records, and carried on a spasmodic monologue razzing the officers and just gabbing about everything from the abominable weather to the latest guy who had wrecked a jeep.
Lieutenant Jim Gray was from Wichita Falls, Texas, and he looked like a Texan-wind-burned and unsmooth. He was far over his allotted missions, and if it hadn't been for the nearing invasion he would probably have been on his way home by then.
Like every other Texan in the Air Forces-and it seemed to be half Texans-he had to take a lot of razzing about his state. But he was proud of it, and always in plain sight under the end of his cot was a beautifully scrolled pair of cowboy boots.
Lieutenant Gray was a firm believer in the flak vest. A flak vest is a sort of coat of mail, made up of little squares of steel plating. It hangs from the shoulders and covers the chest and back.
One day a hunk of hot metal about the size of a walnut struck him right in the chest. He said it felt as if some giant had hit him with his fist. It bent the steel plating but didn't go through. Without it he would have been a dead duck.
Sergeant Hanson, who flew with him, had taken the bent plate out and was keeping it as a souvenir. Lieutenant Gray kept the hunk of shrapnel itself, with a little tag on it.
The lieutenant was anxious to get home. Not so much because he was homesick but because, as he said, "I'd just like to fly in a little Texas weather for a change."
The English weather was the fliers' biggest complaint. It's dark and cloudy and rainy most of the time, and it changes like lightning. They said that sometimes they would start to take off and the other end of the runaway would close in before they got there. How those mighty air fleets ever operated at all is a modern miracle.
In that area I ran into an old friend, another Texan-Major Royal Roussel, who used to be managing editor of the Houston Press. He was about my age, and like me he was starting to feel decrepit. He was in the planning section of the bomber command, and he said it was worse than running a newspaper. The pressure of detail and the responsibility of mapping those complex missions for the whole command sometimes had him mentally swamped. At such times he just got up and walked out for half a day. Sometimes he went flying, sometimes he played golf. "I played golf yesterday," he said, "and I'm sure I'm the only man in England who ever succeeded in playing eighteen holes without even once, not one single time, being on the fairway."
Every pilot and enlisted combat crew man had an English bicycle, for the distances are long on a big airdrome. The boys in my but had to go about a mile to the flying line and about a quarter of a mile to eat. Breakfast ended at eight, and like human beings the world over those not flying got up just in time to run fast and beat the breakfast deadline by five seconds.
They ate at long wooden tables, sitting on benches. But they had white tablecloths, and soldiers to serve them. At supper they had to wear neckties and their dress blouses. The officers' club bar opened half an hour before supper and some of the boys went and had a couple of drinks before eating. As everywhere else in England, the whisky and gin were all gone a few minutes after the bar opened.
The enlisted crew men ate in a big room adjoining the officers' mess. They ate exactly the same food, but they ate it a little differently. They lined up and passed through a chow line. White enamel plates were furnished them, but each man had to bring his own knife, fork, spoon and canteen cup.
Their tables were not covered. When they finished they carried out their own dishes and emptied anything left over into a garbage pail, but they didn't have to wash their dishes. The enlisted men didn't have to dress up, even for supper.
Everybody thought that the food was exceptionally good. While I was there we had real eggs for breakfast, and for other meals such things as pork chops, hamburger steak, chocolate cake and ice cream.
Of course both these messes were for combat crews only. Ground personnel ate at a different mess. They didn't have quite as fine a choice as the fliers, but I guess nobody begrudged the little extra.
In various clubrooms on the airdrome, and even in some of the huts, there were numerous paintings of beautiful girls, colored maps of Europe, and so on. One but had been wonderfully decorated by one of the occupants-Lieutenant C. V. Cripe, a bombardier from Elkhart, Indiana. He also painted insignia on planes.
This same but had a tiny little garden walk leading up to the door. On a high post flanking the walk there hung white wooden boards with the name of each flier in the but painted in green letters, and under the name rows of little green bombs representing the number of missions he had been on.
All the names were of officers except for the bottom board, which read "Pfc. Gin Fizz," and under it were painted five little puppy dogs marching along in a row with their tails up.
Pfc. Gin Fizz was a small white dog with a face like a gargoyle, and altogether the most ratty and repulsive-looking animal I had ever seen. But she produced beautiful pups practically like an assembly line, and the station was covered with her offspring.
Dogs were rampant. There was everything from fat fuzzy little puppies with eyes barely open to a gigantic Great Dane. This one magnificent beast was owned by Lieutenant Richard Lightfine, of Garden City, Long Island, and went by the name of Tray.
The gunner sergeants in my barracks had a breedless but lovable cur named Omer. He came by his name in a peculiar fashion.
Some months before the squadron made a raid on a town in France named St. Omer. One plane got shot up over the target, and back in England had to make a forced landing at a strange field. While waiting for the crippled plane to be patched up the crew acquired the puppy. In celebration of their return from the dead they named him Omer. Omer slept impartially on anybody's cot, and the boys brought him scraps from the mess hall. He didn't even know he was at war. Life was very good.
The station had a glee club too, and a very good one. They gave a concert for the people of the nearest village and I went along to hear it. The club had twenty-nine men in it, mostly ground men but some fliers. The director was Corporal Frank Parisi from Bedford, Ohio. He had taught music in junior high school there.
The club had already given ten concerts, and they were so good they were booked for three concerts weekly for six weeks ahead, and slated to sing in London. So you see that lots of things besides shooting and dying can go along with a war.