Three letters tell an interesting story
LETTER 1: E-mail from John Beir
to Glenn Rendahl:
Date: Thursday, 10 Jun 1999
Greatly enjoyed "Frequent Flyers of the Forties," your piece on your experiences during WW II in Europe.I was able to get your address from the Liberandos@aol.com for my father, Lt. Col. Howard F. Beir, Commander of the 514th during the early part of 1944.
Now 81, 82 on July 4th, 1999, he is retired and living in Lakeville, CT. He, too, enjoyed the story and wanted to know if I could get your address or phone number so that he might get in touch. It wasn't until I stumbled upon the 376th's home page and started letting him in on this great site that my dad redeveloped an interest in his experiences. He's had several people contact him who remembered him and I think that that really got his interest peaked.
I'm 41 and missed all of our recent armed conflicts. My dad always says that if nothing else, he's glad that what you all went through made the world a little bit safer for my generation and my children's.
Thank you for a great story on what it was like (minus the terror that must have been there every once in a while!)
LETTER 2: Howard Beir's letter
to Glenn Rendahl:
Date: June 6, 1999
Howard F. Beir
89 Balgo Road
Lakeville, CT 06039
Dear Glenn Rendahl;
I am writing to tell you how much I enjoyed your "Frequent Flyers" that my son obtained for me a few months after he found out about the 376th Bomb Group's Veteran's Association on the Internet. I then joined and since then I've received a dozen odd letters and a number of phone calls. One you will enjoy telling about is a first mission for a new pilot. I had put him in back of me on one mission, and afterwards when officer's de-briefing started, he took off his wings and bar, handed them to me and said (all of which I had completely forgotten) "I want to resign; those bastards were shooting directly at me." He went on to say I promised him things would get easier and I believe they did.
Now, I'm not a stranger to California, having spent many years growing up in Beverly Hills. Went to Beverly High for a couple of years. I do believe, between us, we covered a good deal of the 514th's time in Italy.
As I mention in the attached copy of a letter I wrote to my son a couple of years ago, (which I thought you might enjoy scanning), I took over as C.O. of the 514th Bomb Squadron in December of '43 just after they moved up to Italy. I stayed there until August 1944. A good friend of mine then was Keith Compton, who was just retiring as the Group C.O. Keith had led the Group on the famous low level raid on Ploesti, and made the wrong turn. Did you ever read "Black Sunday," a version of the low-level raid? If not, let me know and I'll send you a copy of mine.
I saw a story the other day about the B2 bombers. They only carry a crew of two! This summer they're starting on developing a class of bombers that, like the drones used for photo ops, will be completely crew-less. How times do change.
I guess, from the letters I've received, there might be as many as 30% of the 514 still alive. Another few years though, and we will all be gone and hopefully our grandchildren will find a better way to solve their problems.
Thank you so much for writing your story which, again, I deeply enjoyed reading.
My very best,
(Formerly Lt. Col.) Howard F. Beir
LETTER 3: Howard Beir's letter
to his son:
Date:February 26, 1997
You asked for some coverage of my years in the military. This coverage is, of course, subject to fifty years of memory with all that is entailed in that warning. With that proviso, here is the story.
The total included about six years of continuous service during WW2 and if there was one theme that ran through it all, it was luck. After reading the pages that follow, I think you will agree with me. Luck in two categories. First can be termed survivability. My only injury was a non-combat back injury, which later grew into a spinal fusion. I lost many friends and many more were wounded, but came out fairly whole. The second area was in assignments.
I not only never spent interminable periods in training or dull assignments but also had a wonderful variety of jobs and activities. I should have made more of them.
My military service actually started in 1934 when, at the University of Pennsylvania. I elected to take R.O.T.C. instead of athletics. I've mentioned to you that I was two years ahead in school and my size and lack of real ability alone seemed to me to deny any opportunity to compete on the playing field. Also, as I trust you did with the Greys, I enjoyed the military. Did I see a war coming? Perhaps twenty-five percent of my feeling and much of that might have been hopeful. I liked R.O.T.C. and spent the last year as an officer of the regiment. In between my junior and senior years I went to camp along with the rest at Fort Dix but stayed an extra eight weeks for additional training, which included achieving excellence in all infantry weapons. In those days, I liked to shoot. My only real trouble occurred at graduation when we were the ushers and had to appear in heavy winter uniforms with our sabers. Not yet twenty-one by a considerable margin-- age was later reduced to eighteen, I was the only one in my class that could not be sworn in as a Second Lieutenant and so had to appear without any indication of rank. If one more on-looker had tapped me on the shoulder and advised that I had forgotten my insignia, I was prepared to pull the saber and skewer him to the wall. I do not think I've ever been that mad!
After graduation, in 1938, I attended reserve training at Plattsburgh, N.Y. at which we had an entire division for the first time since World War I. We were not fully equipped by a long shot and many troops used broomsticks instead of rifles.
The Colonel commanding my R.O.T.C. unit at Pennsylvania had come directly from command of the Sixteenth Infantry at Governor's Island. It was a crack outfit, one of four regiments assigned to the First Division. The Colonel graciously offered to see if he could have me assigned to the Sixteenth as a Reserve Officer and I jumped at the invitation. They agreed. After graduation, I took a job in Washington, writing for the United States News and representing them in Senate hearings on the Hill and coverage at the White House, but doing my reserve work with the Sixteenth.
In mid-1940 it seemed to me that things were starting to heat up. I had a chance to go on active duty within the Executive Office if the President in a newly formed outfit called the Office of Export Control, and grabbed it. I was number seven or eight with them, as I recall, and my first job was to set up an intelligence unit. I developed contacts, for example, with the FBI, among others. One of their original concerns was the trans-shipment of goods from South America to Germany, based on orders given American suppliers. Could I help? Our original list of items subject to export control was extremely small, theoretically covering only items in very short supply for our own defense. We did not have computers in those days but I had rolls of blank export licenses printed up in five different colors with carbon paper in between. These applications were then typed out and filed by different categories. With this information which had hitherto not been available, we did indeed pick up the American firms who had been trans-shipping via Central and South America relay points, and put a stop to that.
Later I was moved up to become Executive Secretary of Export Control's Policy Committee, a group with representatives from the State Department, the military and so forth. It was interesting work. I remember one Canadian who having been refused export licenses for mica to be used for spark plugs by the Japanese, appealed for special consideration. He said he had been in the business all his life and it was the first mica he had ever seen with almost invisible fissures or cracks running through it. If used for spark plugs by the Japanese air force as planned, they would sooner or later all blow up. I did my best to get him his license but was turned down on that one. Too much danger of International complaint, I was told.
By late 1941 my original commanding officer, General Russell Maxwell, had been sent on to another assignment and my new boss was a character by the name of Henry Wallace, Vice-President under Roosevelt. He was rumored to be a communist, which was never publicly proved, but certainly was an extremely liberal type that I strongly disliked. He immediately had a very long list of items added to those requiring export licenses. This brought about additional representation on our Policy Committee from various governmental branches; each involved with the additional items and each requiring a copy of every licensee application. Within a short time, we had an estimated ten thousand unacknowledged, unsorted applications stored in boxes and all in all, I felt it was time for me to leave.
The War Production Board had been set up to administer the country's production and allocation facilities and a good friend of mine by the name of Eddy Locke was an assistant to Donald Nelson, the Chairman of the Board. There was an opportunity to join them and Eddy had me taken off active duty and had me go to work there. Pearl Harbor was three weeks away!
At the time, we were starting to produce essential intelligence and sabotage items in small quantities for American and Allied agents. These included such things as short-wave radios packed in suitcases, TNT in the form of coal blocks to blow up trains, etc., etc. They were very concerned that German intelligence would plant an agent somewhere along the priority granting chain and would uncover these covert items of military significance. Their solution was to give me authority to grant priority applications on a very small scale, sufficient to take care of these modest intelligence needs by our own and allied forces but insufficient, of course, to affect war production needs. Then came Pearl! The demands accelerated for our work and I spent many nights as well as days at the office.
A couple of weeks after Pearl, I received a phone call from General Donovan. I not only recognized the name as head of the office of Strategic Services and a great World War I hero, but also had actually met him in Buffalo where we had lived for a few years. In peacetime he was a prominent lawyer in the country, he was neither fish nor fowl in terms of securing supplies. Former suppliers who now had to ship all output to the armed forces had rejected his orders. Could I help? I asked for a couple of days and went back to the office. After some thought I produced about twenty odd pages of every conceivable type of raw and finished material, and then appended it to a priority application on which I gave him an A1A rating - the highest. I made another date with General Donovan and turned over the signed, dated form to him, stressing he was never to let it out of his office. Instead, when needing anything subject to priority control, he was to send them a telegram citing the A1A rating and the license number which I had put on. Initially skeptical, he nevertheless tried it out for a few days and called me back for a third meeting to advise it was working beautifully with all suppliers cooperating.
What could he do to show his appreciation? I asked him for a favor and he looked at me skeptically and asked what did I want? I gave him one word, "Combat." He smiled, and promised me that I would get it. He then went further and said what would I like to do? I explained that I had heard they were flying agents into occupied territory and dropping them by parachute. "Are you a pilot?" he asked. "No," I said, "but we can overcome that in a hurry." I had been told the prewar twelve month's training for pilots had been cut to seven months. I assured him that I felt I could do it in ninety days and asked that he sign a letter to General Arnold, head of the Air forces, making such a request. He said "Why not?" I drafted the letter and he signed it. General Arnold responded immediately to the request, had me put back on active duty with orders to proceed to Southeast Training Command in Alabama within a week. Eighty-eight days after arriving there, I was back in Washington with wings and some 205 hours, as I recall, to my credit. I had no advanced training for multi-engines, instruments, etc.
General Donovan asked me what other training I wanted. I had heard that they were starting parachute training at Fort Benning and also raised the possibility of having to get some of these agents in and out by boat. I felt I needed some experience in both. He agreed and said, "Draft some more letters."
First came the Navy. Shortly after he made the request to the Secretary of the Navy, then James Forrestal, I started to get telephone calls from friends there wanting to know how I managed to get this assignment and, when I started to discuss it with them, was told to "Shut up." I simply could not understand the problem until I received orders to proceed by submarine, surface craft, commercial aircraft, etc., to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, where one of our great battles with the Japanese occurred a couple of weeks later. Unhappily my destination was the Solomon Island Naval Training station in Maryland, about 80 miles from Washington, where I spent a couple of weeks learning to pilot LCP's (Landing Craft Personnel), LCT's (Landing Craft Tanks) and several other small naval vessels. It was fun but time was fleeting.
My next training post was Fort Benning where they had formed the First Experimental Paratroop Detachment. One problem was that they did not know much about landing in those days and instructed us, if we hit while swinging forward to put our right hand up to our forehead and roll forward. That seemed to work. If we hit swinging backwards, we were to put our butt next to our heels and roll back over our head. This proved impracticable and we suffered some 35% coccyx and lower back injuries. I smacked mine up but kept quiet because I wanted to fly at all costs.
Years later I compounded the injury by slipping on some stairs in Chicago. The Head of surgery at Neurological Institute in New York recommended spinal fusion, which was done. It's never worked well. He, himself, had the same operation and spent the last five years of his life in a wheelchair.
Within a few weeks, an individual representing himself from the Comptroller's Office at the Treasury, as I recall, phoned and told me that he had a problem involving me. It turned out, they said, I was the first one to win both pilot and paratrooper's wings, and whatever I thought, they were not about to let me earn jump and flight pay in the same month. In years to come, of course, there were innumerable pilots who also secured paratroop wings as well but there it was - I was the first. The irony was that I was a Captain at the time. This meant that flight pay at 50% of base pay of $200 a month, and jump pay at$100 a month for officers, was the same. As requested, I put in for both the next month, having fulfilled the four hours of flying and four jump requirement, and was officially denied one of them. As far as I know, the ruling stands today.
My final training spent here was a few days in a Canadian intelligence school. Nobody there was using his right name for security reasons, the curriculum was not too well organized, at least in my opinion, and after planning how to theoretically remove Toronto from the map, I went back to Washington and told General Donovan I was ready to go. We had previously talked about the mission, which was to build and head up an American point of exit and entry in the Mediterranean for our agents to the Balkans, Italy and so forth. He had previously accepted my request that I be given some time with the British outfit flying agents into France and other occupied areas from England and had arranged for it. I flew to London. There were just a few OSS personnel in England at that time and we all headquartered at Claridges with full restitution for room, food, drink, etc. One of my first stops was at our Embassy where for security purposes they decided to carry me as an Assistant Military Attache. The major benefit of this relationship was that shortly thereafter they issued me a car, a rather attractive khaki painted, red leathered, British built unit. To my amazement the car was charged, together with gasoline from any outlet in England, to an account entitled "Reverse Lend Lease." I reveled in it.
Prior to reporting for flying, I managed to arrange a few days with the British paratroopers and qualified for their wings. Before my first jump a Sergeant Instructor took me aside and said, "I don't know how you have been taught to land in the States, but here we believe it best if you simply collapse, acting like a drunk. I assured him that would be easy. They had 1% injuries compared with the 35% I had encountered in the States and I promptly cabled General Donovan. I am sure that many others were contributing to solving this problem but they did revise landing procedures shortly thereafter. This under my belt, I reported to 138 Squadron at an airport called Tempsford, a small secret airdrome some fifty miles north of London. I was a newly made Major, trained - I thought - fascinated by what lay ahead and eager for combat. How wrong I was!
138 Squadron was the one English squadron assigned to underground and other special activities. Let's start with a physical description: In the United States we normally put four squadrons totaling an Air Group, at an airport. This meant quite a sizable organization. We had ten men to a crew in four-engine heavy bombers, and support personnel for a squadron of about 600-700 men. The British for several reasons normally limited their airports to one or two squadrons at the most. As I remember, there were some 1100 airports in England during the war. They were so close you could often see one from another. I have never been more embarrassed than when I found once that I had landed at one airport base on the instructions from the tower of another. Later I learned that this was not uncommon.
Tempsford was quite comfortable. It did have top-notch security. Cameras, for example, were not permitted. They had a smaller airport in East Anglia near to France supporting Tempsford's activities, which handled many single engine landings.
There were several types of planes kept at Tempsford. First came the four-engine Halifaxes destined for dropping purposes. Those utilized for personnel had the bomb bay converted into a circular unit. We sat on the edges and when drop time approached, watched first an amber light come on, and then pushed forward, exiting the plane when the pilot put on a green light. The ripcord was anchored to the plane making this a stati-chute. One of the first things I learned in England was that they were dropping from 400 down to 250 feet compared with the 750 we had used in the States. They wanted those dropping to be in the air a minimum number of seconds.
The next plane was the Lysander, a high wing, single-engine unit, somewhat similar to the Beaver used in Canadian logging operations. It had a rugged landing gear and carried automatic slots and flaps on the wings. The slots were on the forward edge and the flaps on the rear, extending automatically and offering increased surface at low speeds for takeoff, etc. The speed range of this plane was extraordinary. It had a 905 horsepower Perseus engine and could go from a 40 mile an hour takeoff to more than 200 miles an hour. Halifaxes and Lysanders were only operational during the so-called moon period of about eight to ten nights, when we had some light from the moon. While Halifax pilots were all English and depended on their navigators and their own skills to bring them to the drop zone, the Lysanders were a very different story. They carried only the pilot and he was almost invariably a Frenchman or other European, intimately familiar with the specific pick-up area. We used three lights in an L position for pick up, the pilot landing between two and using the two on the left for alignment. He tried to be on the ground for not more than sixty seconds and, if essential, could carry up to three agents. Space was not wasted on parachutes. I never did pick-up flying but did get checked out in the plane. It was fun to fly.
The third plane at Tempsford was the Mosquito, which in my opinion was the finest conventional plane of the war, twin engined and made out of pressed wood in Canada. It never achieved its deserved popularity because jets came along before it could be widely used. I was once given a demonstration by being taken on an upward roll off the deck on one engine. Admittedly we were cleaned out of any weight but also admittedly I had some strange feelings that moment. Fortunately I have never seen this done since. The fourth type of plane at Tempsford consisted of two Lockheed 12's which had been assigned to fly the two Princesses to Canada if England had been invaded. Ten of the twelve passenger seats had been taken out and long range tanks built in. The planes were never needed for that purpose, of course, and I used to fly around England on one of them, stopping where convenient for a casual drink and lunch. I must tell you of my admiration for British aircraft at that time. A very high percentage of their flying was done on instrument, which I knew of only in theory. But I found that on every British plane all instrument were in exactly the same position in front of the pilot. In American planes, each plane was different, because of varying manufacturers and no attempt at standardization. We used basically three units for instrument flying, Needle, Ball and Airspeed, as they were called. Needle referred to the altimeter, which told you how high you were. The Ball referred to the artificial horizon powered by a centrifuge, which enabled you to fly straight and level or make turns when you could not see outside the cockpit. Properly maintained, Airspeed kept you from stalling out. There was one additional instrument, a compass. It was much larger than American compasses for more precise flying and was mounted on gimbals between the knees.
My living accommodations were really very good. As a Major - Squadron Commander in their ranking system, I was given my own Nissan hut, complete with wood stove, bed and bath. no shower but a nice tub. Two or three times a day there would be a knock at the door and a young English girl in uniform would come in to put wood on the stove, make the bed and so forth. It was my first introduction to women in uniform and I thought they did a wonderful job.
Now comes Squadron Commander Pickard, in charge of flying operations at 138. Somewhat older than I, he had been captain of the King's Flight in peacetime, acting as pilot on any flight carrying the King of England,. There was a Wing Commander, equal to our Lt. Col. in administrative charge of the entire airport. To get back to Pickard, he was the finest pilot I ever knew of or flew with.
There is no doubt in my mind that I survived the war because of what he taught me. I'll give you and example or two later on. Pick was certainly shocked at my minimal couple of hundred hours of flying, lack of any advanced or instrument training capability and yet he was always gracious and never criticized. I put myself in his hands, telling him I hoped to pick up enough training and knowledge so we could proceed with a similar type operation in the Mediterranean. He smiled and said he would do his best to help me. And he did. Morning, noon and nighttime, we flew. Often from one airport to another, sometimes just on compass courses at night. Navigation at that time was difficult, but while I was with the RAF they brought into operation a radio triangulation service called "George" which proved of considerable help.
Pick told me many stories of their early days. One, I recall, told of a pickup using a Lysander. Because he had lived in northern France for a while before the war, he did a number of early pickups himself. On one mission he was telling me of, the pick-up went smoothly, and he took of, heading north with two agents in the rear seat. He ran out his ETA, looked out and saw nothing but water. He kept on and finally checked again. Lots of water, nothing else. Had to be the Irish Sea. Like many other RAF pilots he carried a flask, keeping it in his breast pocket. Leaning over to fly, the pocket was right over his compass, and looking down as he pulled out the flask, he saw his compass jump wildly. The flask was a new one, a recent gift. Realizing there must be iron in it, he pulled the window back, threw the flask out and headed east. The compass settled down, and he throttled back, minimizing fuel use and hoping for the best. He slowly descended, the shore finally coming into view. Seconds later the engine quit and he made a dead stick landing on the beach in the moonlight. No one was hurt but the plane had to be taken out by truck. Did I believe his story? Yes, but I had the advantage of knowing the man. Incidentally, if any American pilots were caught with a flask in the cockpit, his career would have ended right there. For weeks I trained until finally one afternoon with the moon coming up, Pick said, "How would you like to go as co-pilot on a trip to northern France?" I jumped at the chance. But first he said, "The intelligence people want to talk to you." With no idea of the subject, I went over. And they carefully explained, that if I was captured, the Germans would know immediately that I was American, and surmise that no matter how much I told them, I knew more and would do anything to get the information - and described some of their methods. I couldn't argue with them. As a result of this, they said I was offered a cyanide pill carried by all agents. I had heard of them but never seen one. It was slightly less than one-quarter of an inch in diameter, gray in color and guaranteed, they told me, to end things within thirty seconds. I concealed it, using the first flesh colored adhesive tape I had ever seen. I t was never needed and eventually I discarded it.
By this time Pick only went on what he called the diciest of jobs. For example, the Gestapo had taken over a house in Brussels and converted it to an interrogation and torture facility. He took a Mosquito, went in and bombed the one house without causing additional destruction. Unhappily he did not survive the war. We corresponded after I left England but I only heard about his death months after it happened. The Germans had captured a number of French underground personnel, imprisoning them in Amien. The British had reason to believe that one of the Frenchmen had some information as to the proposed invasion, and decided on trying to blow the end of the cell block, releasing or killing the Maquis as they were called. Pick insisted on leading the attack using Mosquitoes for the purpose. After the bombing, which was successful, he came back and inspected the results flying on the deck. It was there that the Luftwaffe caught him and with no room to maneuver; he was blown apart by a couple of ME-109's. I had no better instructor or friend.
That first mission as co-pilot on a Halifax was followed by other missions as co-pilot, then pilot. We were lucky and were never jumped. Those that were jumped, simply disappeared from the scene. We flew alone but I know that in many cases the RAF had diversionary aircraft bombing not too far away. I was told that German radar, while installed on the coasts, had not yet reached full strength inland and that as long as we kept our propeller ports covered with a flame resistant paint to reduce visibility, we stood a good chance. Time went on and finally even Pick admitted my flying was "satisfactory," and I was ready to go on my own. I cabled General Donovan, turned in my car, picked up some supplies - including a bottle of very good Brandy which was later smashed at the Heliopolis airport and proceeded by a convenient flight to Cairo, OSS headquarters in the Middle East.
There were only a few of us there at that time. I was put up in one of many fairly large boat tied to the banks of the Nile. We had about eight cabins on the boat and I can remember the English weather officer, and two females, an American OSS middle-aged woman, who had just come in from the Far East and a South African girl involved with security. We were a fairly compatible quartet. I was the only flying office in OSS, Middle East, at that time and it soon became apparent to me that OSS lacked status, or even potential status, in the area. It was a British sphere of influence with a British Commanding General, British Diplomats in control of foreign policy, etc, etc. General Donovan had done the preliminary work with a previous General; the present one wanted no part of American intelligence operation in his area of operation. In part because they were in the midst of what was called the Tito-Mihajlovic mess (Yugoslavia), two competing political leaders, both of whom were shot shortly later in the war.
I was more than irritated, when, in an effort to appease me, I was invited to see an operation on the Mediterranean coast quite close to Alexandria. It was destined for the Balkans and found they were using four B-24's, supplied out of American air force stock. My pleadings got nowhere and I was told the British would go as high as necessary to keep me from operating.
A few Cypriots arrived from Cairo asking for help. They had armed themselves by killing German troops who were occupying the island. They were an embarrassment to OSS and I was told by my commanding office to promise them supplies if they would go back. I asked for and got the order put in writing. Then in desperation I flew to North Africa where General Doolittle, the nearest American General, was located. He was commanding the 9th Air Force. I had heard they had a German plane recently delivered by a German crew that was surrendering, and had vision of using it. I managed to see General Doolittle, who first beat me severely in a ping pong game and then insisted he would be in very serious trouble if he let me borrow the German plane especially for use outside his theater. It was my last straw. I told him the story. He sat there for a moment and then said, "I have a better idea. I'm going to Washington next week on a quick trip. I know Bill Donovan quite well. Let me talk to him and see if he will release you. If so, I'll give you a squadron of B-24's in the 15th Air Force, which I am taking over in a few weeks." Doolittle was of course one of my idols and I jumped at the chance. About a month later I flew to Italy to take command of the 514th Heavy Bombardment Squadron, one of four in the 376th Bomb Group based at San Pancrazio.
The RAF flew alone and at night. The Americans did the opposite. This meant I had to bring up my formation flying abilities and it took a week or two of intensive effort to learn the 25 to 75 foot separation flying that we preferred. At this distance and always flying based on the man on your left and below, we did present a formidable opposition to potential enemy fighters. There were waist guns, top and bottom guns, tail guns and forward firing machine guns on later models of the 24. The Germans later developed rockets which could go 600 to 1000 yards but when we first started out, their guns were effective only up to 200-300 yards, matching us at that stage.
I promised to give you at least one example of how Pick's training had helped me. Here it is. The messiest part of bomber flying is to lead a group, especially in tight formation, into clouds. It's total chaos because you cannot see the planes on which you are flying. You can hear the crashes. The first time it happened to me was when the Wing Commander well ahead of us took the entire wing into clouds when we were just over Yugoslavia. Instinctively I pulled the throttle back to stalling speed and simply dropped out of the formation at a lower flying speed than I believed anybody else could maintain. It worked. I easily caught up with the remnants of the Squadron a bit later. It was Pick's insistence on superior instrument flying that brought me through the two or three occasions it happened. I passed the concept along to my pilots.
Squadron Commanders were supposed to fly only rarely and we usually limited it to when we were leading the wing or even a larger group. Ploesti was a major target and also a source of substantial losses. We had no fighter support for the first year and a half of operations and all in all out of the thirteen Ploesti raids, of which I was on eight, we lost some 500 heavy bombers - our biggest airforce loss of the War as far as I know. This represented about 6,000 men. Of course, some later walked out, reaching Turkey or safe havens in Yugoslavia, and would dribble back to us over the months with wonderful stories of survival! We also did some short run missions into Northern Italy, longer ones into Germany, and even an unusual low level run at Anzio.
At this point, thinking that bombing photos were not showing enough results, I suggested to General Doolittle, who came down to the Squadron occasionally, that he let me go into Ploesti with a couple of hundred paratroopers and do the job on the ground. He burst out laughing, then apologized by saying he had been expecting a court martial after Tokyo, instead of the Congressional Medal which he got, but would surely get a court martial if I deprived the Airforce of a strategic Target, especially if we were successful. Let me get rid of one thought here and now. There are some, often non-combatants, who talk of the thrill of combat. Of course there was a tremendous rush of adrenaline when, at several hundred miles an hour, we could see, or were told, that the German fighters were approaching us head on.
We had no rear view mirrors in bombers, at least in those days. When we turned off the straight and narrow bombing run (needed for good results) to take evasive action and try to throw off enemy action, one could look sideways and see the bombers crashed together, smoking or in flames, or exploding because their ammo had been hit. All slowly starting to sink the five or six miles to earth with bodies dropping out sporadically. For several years after the war I had constant nightmares involving those scenes. I can still recall them by simply closing my eyes. Needless to say, I don't do it very often. It may have been like a cavalry charge at a hundred times the speed of horses. But no part of it was fun. I think I felt it especially because, like other commanders, I had ordered the men into those planes. That is part of the price you pay for command. Finally I got up to 57 missions, seven over the tour limit, and was ordered home. That, together with my RAF missions, gave me top score in the European theater of operations at the time.
At one point, King Peter of Yugoslavia made several Honorary Pilots in the Royal Yugoslavian Airforce. The only benefit I can recall being told about was free passage on Yugoslavian railways if he was ever put back on the throne. He wasn't. Mother has the pin if you ever want to see it; maybe Meredith would like it eventually.
And so I returned to the States wondering what assignment I would have next. An interviewing officer finding I had five sets of wings, that is American pilot, American Paratrooper, RAF, British Paratrooper, and the previously mentioned Yugoslavian, said I was the only one in the American armed forces with that number. Because of my Washington background, felt I could be of more use on speaker's duty than anywhere else. So I did that for several months, turning back airports to use, helping to sell war bonds, etc. At one point I got to Colorado Springs where they were assembling B29 crews for Japan. They scoffed, however, when I asked for a squadron, pointing out that with recent loss rates on pilots well under anticipated loss rates and with the European war over, the regulars, who had been on training command, were clamoring for combat assignments on their records.
That ended any hope of further combat for me and within a few months I asked for reversion to reserve status. This was granted and it was only a few weeks later that I found had I stayed in, I would have made full Colonel on the basis of time in grade promotion policy then in effect. That about ended my military career. In 1946 when I went to Saudi Arabia, the Airforce decided it would not be safe to send military material through the mail to Saudi Arabia. I had to resign my commission.
I recall one final incident in 1948 after finishing my time in Saudi Arabia, I flew to Rome and rented a car there to drive up to Switzerland and see the green trees. On the final day of driving, I picked up a chap whose English was not too bad. He finally started talking about the war and said he had been a German fighter pilot based in Yugoslavia during my time there. At that time the hair went right up on the back of my neck. I couldn't help it. I dropped him off shortly thereafter.
And that, John, is about the end except for one subject I want to write to you about, because you were involved, although your memory may not go back that far.
For 25 years, from the time I was 16 until 40, I was a total alcoholic. Why, I don't know. It could have been a habit gone bad. It could have been an environment where there was a lot of drinking, which was certainly true of college, Washington, and the Airforce. It could have been, as some in AA believed, an attempt to find something which I could do as good as, or better than, my peers. Often in the early stages, they told me, alcoholics can drink substantially more than their compatriots.
In any event, I did my best starting around 1956 to break the addiction but had several slips. Now, I was not a belligerent, check-bouncing, falling down type of drunk. I never bounced a check, never got into a scrap, never drank compulsively when I was flying, but other wise I was constantly drinking. Did it affect me? Certainly! Affected my judgment, my planning and my thinking. Any addiction that supersedes your judgment, affects you. Finally the possibility of having you became apparent. I swore to your Mother that if that developed and we were lucky enough to have you, that you would never see me take a drink. And you never have. I believe my last one, to date, was March 31, 1958, or perhaps it was the day before."
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