On January 1st, Cadet Parks awoke with a sense of excitement about the new year. He was beginning his third week of advanced flight training and the goal was in sight. In forty-five days, he would graduate as a Second Lieutenant and an Army Air Force pilot.
Just fifteen days before, my father had finished basic flight training and departed Bainbridge, Georgia bound for his present assignment at the Army Advanced Flight School at Columbus, Mississippi. Five days after reporting for duty, he celebrated his twenty-first birthday.
A milestone birthday, then Christmas, then New Year’s, and now a bunch of cross country flying in twin engine trainers… As far as my father was concerned, life just didn’t get much better.
In spite of the horror raging across Europe and in the Pacific, for Cadet Parks, war was still an elusively abstract concept.
The aircraft he had flown so far were not instruments of war. They were benign creatures with no combat capabilities, only harmful to the men who flew them. To date, the young aviator’s training was almost entirely focused on how to get a plane in the air and back on the ground without killing anyone.
Sure, they had learned how to fire a .45 handgun and there was some skeet shooting with shotguns to teach them how to lead a moving target but, hell, that stuff was fun.
In his letters to his mother, more than once, Cadet Parks ends long descriptions of how arduous his training is with those exact words. It’s tough… “But, it’s fun.”
The fun wasn’t going to last much longer.
By the time my father’s next birthday rolled around, many of his friends would be dead or missing in action and he would be a prisoner of war deep inside Hitler’s Third Reich.
They Were Friends
The cadets of class 43-B had been training together since April of 1942. Over the ensuing eight months, many friendships developed. After Bainbridge, the friends began heading in different directions.
Bomber pilots went to multi-engine advanced training at bases like the one Cadet Parks went to in Columbus, Mississippi. Trainees destined to fly fighters went to single engine advanced schools. My father’s pal and future fighter pilot, J.P. O’Reagan, ended up in Marianna, Florida.
John Patrick “Pat” O’Reagan was born in Kansas in 1921. Sometime in the 1930s, Pat’s father packed up the family and moved to Washington D.C . where the senior O’Reagan got a job at the Washington Navy Yard.
On March 26th, 1942, three weeks after his twenty first birthday, Pat, the oldest of the three O’Reagan sons, enlisted in the Army Air Force at Bolling Field in the District of Columbia.
Two weeks later, on Friday, April 10th, Pat joined my father and almost two hundred other brand new aviation cadets as they boarded a train headed for Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.
Cadets O’Reagan and Parks went through pre-flight, primary flight, and basic flight training together. Now they were going their separate ways.
Eleven days after leaving Bainbridge, Pat wrote my father from Marianna.
After his training, Pat was sent to Italy. There, Lt. O’Reagan flew over 100 combat missions in a P-51 Mustang.
He survived the war.
Near the end of Pat’s letter to my father, he mentions several of their mutual friends:
“How is Joe Gay, Carey, Ruhl and all the bunch? Tell Freemole, Ross, Etaugh, and Armstrong that P/O Thomas was asking about them. He saw Colville in Bainbridge over Xmas and asked about all of us.” December 28, 1942 – O’Reagan Letter to Cadet T.A. Parks
There are nine names in those three sentences. With the exception of P/O Thomas, they knew one another for eight months, from April to December of 1942. They trained together at Maxwell Field, Carlstrom Field, and Bainbridge Field.
Joseph M. Gay was born in North Carolina. My father fondly remembered his friend as a tall “southern boy” who played piano and knew all the popular songs of the day.
Sometime in the 1930’s, Joe’s father moved the family from North Carolina to the nation’s capitol and, like Pat O’Reagan’s father, got a job at the Washington Navy Yard. He was a machinist.
Joe had finished a year of college when he enlisted in Washington the same week my father and Pat O’Reagan did.
During their time together, my father and Joe became close friends.
Their mothers both lived in the Washington area and by the time their sons graduated, the women had also become close. My grandmother got Mrs. Gay a job with her at the Fort Washington PX and, in February of 1943, they took the train from Washington to Columbus to see their boys get their wings.
After graduation, Joe and my father went to different training bases in the States to learn to fly B-17s. The next time they would see one another would be eight months later, in England.
Lt. Gay ended up flying with the 306th Bomb Group out of Thurleigh. Lt. Parks flew with the 96th Bomb Group out of Snetterton Heath. Their bases were sixty miles apart.
The two got together at least once in England before Lt. Parks and his crew were shot down November 29th, 1943.
When Mrs. Gay heard the news that her friend’s son was missing in action, she thoughtlessly told my grandmother, “That will never happen to my Joe because he’s too smart.”
For my grandmother, the implication that her son got himself shot down because he wasn’t smart enough to prevent it, stung. But, she held her tongue. She understood a mother’s desperate need for something to hold on to… Some reason to believe her child would come home unscathed… Some way to shield herself from the inescapable fact that, in war, death was tragically random and capricious.
So, Mrs. Gay’s friend let the comment slide. However, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in her later years and I had to listened to this particular story more than once… Way more than once. I can assure you… She may not have said anything to Joe’s mother at the time but… she never got over the hurt that comment caused.
As it turned out, it was a good thing grandmother didn’t share her feelings with Mrs. Gay.
On February 25, 1944, almost three months after Lt. Parks went down over Bremen, the 8th Air Force dispatched 268 B-17s to strike German industrial facilities at Augsburg and Stuttgart.
When Lt. Joe Gay and the 306th took off that morning, they had been assigned the more distant of the two targets, the German military aircraft factories at Augsburg.
It was around noon, over Charleville, France, when enemy fighters began slashing through the American bomber formation. Augsburg was still two hours and 300 miles away.
About ten minutes after the attack began, several fighters focused on Joe’s B-17. The Flying Fortress got hit hard.
According to a surviving crew member, “Lt. Gay gave the order to bail out when the #4 engine burst into flames. His voice was loud and clear and he didn’t seem to be hurt.” Missing Air Crew Report – Aircraft 42-30728
The fire was bad. Only six of the ten members of Joe’s crew managed to bail out before the bomber exploded in mid-air. Lt. Gay and his co-pilot, Lt. Ira Gordon, died at their posts.
It would be almost a year and a half before Joe’s mother received confirmation of his death. During that awful time, my grandmother was Mrs. Gay’s faithful, constant, and comforting companion.
A Late Breaking Odd Coincidence: On Christmas eve, 2016, as I wrote about Lt. Gay’s last mission, 54,000 German citizens had to evacuate their homes because of the discovery of an unexploded 3000 pound, WWII era bomb dropped on their city more than 70 years ago.
The bomb was found in Augsburg, Joe Gay’s destination that awful day in late February of 1944.
Daniel Henderick Carey grew up in Queens. The twenty-two year old had finished a year of college when he enlisted in Washington D.C. in March of 1942.
Eleven months later, Carey and my father graduated from advanced flight training and became Second Lieutenants.
By late September of 1943, Carey was in England with Joe Gay at the 306th Bomb Group at Thurleigh.
On Thursday, October 14th, 1943 the 8th Air Force sent 291 heavy bombers to destroy the German ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. It was a disaster. Sixty B-17s and the 600 men flying in them did not return to England that day.
Entire books have been written about the tragic “Black Thursday” mission so, I will only detail the particulars of two participants.
My father and his crew flew to Schweinfurt and back almost without incident. Apart from being dangerously low on fuel on their return and having to land at the first airbase they encountered once they crossed the channel, it was just another mission.
His friend from Brooklyn was not as fortunate.
That day, Lt. Carey was flying as co-pilot with, what he called, a “bastard crew“.
To get as many bombers as possible to a target, bastard crews were assembled using spare planes, newly arrived personnel, and miscellaneous members of experienced crews. Flying into combat with a bastard crew meant the success of the mission and your survival depended upon men you had only met that morning as you boarded your assigned bomber.
After reading Carey’s official post-war report on the Schweinfurt raid, I suspect he was a command pilot who, for this mission, had been assigned to fly second-in-command to 1st Lt. John Jackson. In Carey’s report, discussing the fate of one of the waist gunners, he states, “Sgt. Elza McQuithy was a member of my crew and flew with me in this bastard crew for the day“. Missing Air Crew Report – Aircraft 42-30710
For official purposes, crews belonged to their pilots. The men who flew with my father were members of the “Parks’ crew“. Because Carey used the possessive in the report, referring to the waist gunner, McQuithy as, “a member of my crew“, I feel, on that terrible day, Carey was probably a first pilot flying in the right seat as Jackson’s co-pilot.
The morning of the 14th, the 8th Air Force Bomb Groups took off from their respective bases, formed up over the English coast, then headed east across the North Sea towards occupied Europe.
Because the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt were extremely important to the Nazi war effort, they were heavily defended. Enemy fighters harassed the American formation on the way to the target and all the way back to the coast.
At 2:15, just ten minutes before turning on their bomb run, the Jackson B-17 was hit. On fire and still under attack, the pilot ordered his crew to abandon ship.
In the middle of the plane, several enlisted men struggled in vain to open the jammed waist exit door. Only two of the five crew members in the back half of the bomber managed to bail out. Sgt. McQuithy, Carey’s gunner, went down with the plane.
The numbers were better for the five men in the front of the B-17. Three officers and one enlisted man exited the aircraft.
Lt. Jackson, the pilot, stayed at the controls keeping the ship steady as airmen scrambled to bailed out. He died with the three other members of the bastard crew who were still aboard when their bomber exploded.
Carey wrote of the twenty-two year old pilot, “He went beyond the point of bravery in holding for time“. Missing Air Crew Report – Aircraft 42-30710
Of the six men who successfully escaped the bomber, only five survived. The crew’s twenty-three year old navigator was fatally injured by his parachute harness when the chute opened.
War, in general, is a seemingly endless, swirling shit storm of cruel tragedies. However, this one stands out as especially cruel because it was so easily avoidable. As Lt. Carey bitterly explained in his report…
“This man met his death due to parachute harness not being adjusted & secured. He was never given ample time to rig his gear in England. He was in the outfit five days and was on his forth mission… He died on his way to a German hospital from internal injuries…” Missing Air Crew Report – Aircraft 42-30710
Lt. Carey was captured as soon as he reached the ground. Eight months after graduating from Advanced Flight training in Columbus, Mississippi, my father’s friend was a prisoner of war.
Frederick Christian Ruhl grew up in Pittsburgh. His father worked for the city as a clerk. Fred worked in the same capacity for the Public Utilities.
A month after Pearl Harbor, Fred quit the Public Utilities job and joined the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet. He was was sent to Maxwell Field in Alabama for pre-flight training.
It was there Cadet Ruhl and Cadet Parks became friends.
After graduation at Columbus, Mississippi, both Second Lieutenants were assigned B-17 transition training. 2nd Lt. Parks went to Smyrna, Tennessee. 2nd Lt. Ruhl went to Blythe Army Airfield in California.
The first clue I had that something had gone wrong in Blythe was in a letter my father wrote his mother in March of 1943, exactly a month after he and Ruhl left Columbus.
“I was shocked to hear about Fred. I know what a blow it was to his mother right after visiting with him. It doesn’t seem possible that it could happen to someone you’ve been so closely associated with. We were very lucky to have so few accidents during our training.” Letter to his Parents – March 16th, 1943
Frederick Ruhl was only the “Fred” in his class. Searching for his name in newspapers printed from February 16th to March 16th, 1943 turned up the story.
On March 4th, sixteen days after leaving Columbus, Fred Ruhl, an instructor, and three other trainees left Blythe in a B-17 on a routine night flying exercise.
They took off at 7:20 in the evening and were due back at midnight. Training flights were supposed to stay within fifty miles of the base. Somehow, Ruhl’s B-17 ended up 200 miles to the northeast over Flagstaff, Arizona.
It was a clear night at Blythe. At Flagstaff, it was cloudy and snowing. The bomber crew was lost and running out of fuel. At 1:45 in the morning, while circling and looking for a place to land, they flew into the side of a mountain. There were no survivors.
The picture at the top of this story, above the title, is my father’s radio range reference card for Columbus, Mississippi. Starting in the 1930s, there was a network of radio transmitters across the country which aviators used as navigation beacons.
The card shows the location of the beacon for Columbus (the circle at the center), as well as the location of the city of Columbus and the Columbus Advanced Flight School (CAFS) in relationship to the beacon.
Because the night was so clear over Blythe, investigators suspected the crew picked up the signal from the beacon at Winslow, Arizona and, mistaking it for the Blythe beacon, flew in the wrong direction. By the time the five young airmen got to Flagstaff, lack of fuel and bad weather sealed their fate.
Fred Ruhl was the first of my father’s friends to die. He had been twenty-three years old for eight days.
Maynard C. Freemole grew up in South Dakota. He quit high school after the 10th grade and on February 10th, 1941, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. Maynard was seventeen.
When America joined the war, Freemole applied for pilot training and was sent to Maxwell Field in Alabama.
Not having completed high school put the teenager at a severe disadvantage during pilot training. However, Maynard bore down, beat the odds, and graduated with my father from twin engine advanced in February of 1943.
Freemole and my father did their B-17 transition training at different locations in the States. However…
Seven months later, on September 25th, 1943, 2nd Lt. Parks and his crew arrived at the 96th Bomb Group’s base at Snetterton Heath and were assigned to the 337th Squadron. Three days later, 2nd Lt. Freemole arrived at the same base and was assigned the same squadron.
They flew combat mission together until November 29th, 1943. That day, the 96th Bomb Group flew their second mission to Bremen, Germany in three days.
Over the target, immediately after bombardier Joseph LeBlanc announced “bombs away“, the Parks’ B-17 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. The rest of this story is told elsewhere in this blog, however, before the sun went down that day, Lt. Parks and his crew were prisoners of war.
A little over two weeks later, on December 16th, the 8th Air Force decided the German naval installation at Bremen needed even more bombing. It is entirely possible this was the Freemole crew’s third trip to this target in less than three weeks.
That morning, over 500 B-17s and B-24s from various bomb groups based all over the part of England commonly known as East Anglia, headed for Germany.
By two o’clock in the afternoon, they had hit their assigned objective. Now, under constant attack by enemy fighters, the beleaguered bombers were battling their way back towards the North Sea and home.
Near the Dutch coast, two B-17s from the 96th Bomb Group’s 337th Squadron were shot from the sky. Lt. Edwin Smith’s plane exploded in mid-air before anyone could bail out. Lt. Freemole’s plane went down in flames. There were no survivors.
The demise of the two bombers came so suddenly and simultaneously that they crashed very close to one another near the tiny village of Poppenwier. The remains of the ten airmen of the Smith crew and the ten from Freemole crew were buried in common graves in the village cemetery.
Maynard Freemole was three months shy of his 21st birthday.
In November of 1949, Lt. Freemole’s remains and those of several of his crew were returned to the United States. They are buried in a common grave at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
Max Ross was a grocery clerk from Iowa.
In 1940, grocery clerking in Iowa paid $700 a year. That may be one of the reasons that, in February, 1941, ten months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the twenty-two year old high school graduate enlisted in the Army.
After America entered the war, the call went out for pilots and Max signed up.
Ross and my father met during pre-flight training at Maxwell Field. Eleven months later, after graduating from twin engine Advanced at Columbus, dad went on to fly B-17s. Second Lt. Ross was assigned to fly B-24 Liberators.
Max ended up in the Pacific Theater of Operations flying combat missions with the 380th Bomb Group out of Australia.
He survived the war.
Howard Alfred Etaugh grew up in Peoria, the son of a watchman at a tractor factory.
Etaugh enlisted in the Army Air Force in Washington D.C . the same week my father did. After getting their commissions, 2nd Lt. Parks flew B-17 Flying Fortresses. 2nd Lt. Etaugh, like Lt. Max Ross, was assigned B-24 Liberators.
In March of 1944, just before going overseas, Howard got a leave from Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana and traveled to St. Louis, Missouri to marry lovely Alice Tiemann.
After the wedding, the groom headed for Italy to fly with the 15th Air Force.
On October 13th, six months after Howard married Alice, the 15th sent more than 650 heavy bombers to hit targets in Hungary.
For those of you who put stock in this kind of thing, that year, October 13th fell on a Friday.
2nd Lt. Etaugh was co-pilot on the crew of Lt. Samuel Winfree. They flew with the 454th Bomb Group out of an airfield at San Giovanni, Italy.
Sometime after midnight on the 13th, the operations room at the 454th got word that a mission was on and their group was going.
Orderlies woke the bomber crews well before dawn for breakfast and briefings. They were going to need to take off early. Their target was 400 miles to the northeast and the planners wanted them dropping their bombs before noon.
Like B-17s, B-24s usually flew with a ten man crew. For some reason, on this mission, the Winfree crew flew without a navigator. There is no explanation, all we know is, the bomber departed San Giovanni with nine souls on board instead of ten.
That’s right… Székesfehérvár. Even Hungarians think that’s too much. They refer to the city as “Fehérvár”.
No matter what you call the city, it was a bad place to be on that particular Friday.
At 11:28 in the morning, after flying 400 miles, and only one minute from their target, the Winfree B-24 was hit by flak from anti-aircraft guns defending the rail yards below. The Liberator finished its bomb run on fire.
In a post war report on the incident, the pilot stated that, after they were hit, he and the engineer worked to extinguish flames on the flight deck and in the bomb bay. Then, at some point, Winfree, the pilot, bailed out.
Winfree wrote that, when he exited the aircraft, 2nd Lt. Etaugh was flying the plane and added, “I was told by co-pilot that he was alright and was coming behind my engineer and myself“. Missing Air Crew Report – Aircraft 42-51366
The pilot got out. His engineer and his co-pilot didn’t.
According to witnesses in other planes, shortly after the burning Liberator dropped its bombs, two parachutes were seen, then the B-24 blew up. One of the surviving waist gunners reported that he was thrown clear of the bomber by the explosion.
The pilot and two gunners floated to safety. Harold Etaugh perished with five other members of the crew. He was twenty-three.
Back in St. Louis, a year would pass before Alice got official confirmation she was a widow.
George V. Armstrong, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. and enlisted there the same week my father did. He was twenty-three.
Like many aviation cadets, George entered the service with just a high school diploma. However, unlike most cadets, when he enlisted, he was married. In fact, when George signed up to go off to war, he was not only married, he and his wife, Elizabeth, had two very young children.
On February 16, 1943, ten months after leaving Elizabeth and the kids in Washington, George Armstrong and my father became Second Lieutenants. The next day, 2nd Lt. Parks went to Smyrna, Tennessee and 2nd Lt. Armstrong went to Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana.
According to Armstrong’s obituary in 2014, Monroe is where George met and married, “my Mattie“, the “love of his life“.
Armstrong served Stateside. He survived both the war and explaining his Mattie to his Elizabeth.
P/O Thomas was probably an Royal Air Force Pilot Officer. During WWII, not only did many British aviation cadets train in the United States, RAF veteran pilots came to America to train our cadets. Most likely, P/O Thomas was an instructor at Bainbridge.
My father fondly remembered the RAF cadets and instructors as gentlemen who were as brave as they were unfailingly polite. He liked them a lot.
Leonard R. Colville was born in Tennessee. After high school, Leonard went to work as an “office boy” for the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army.
After America entered the war, Leonard signed up for pilot training. He met my father at Maxwell Field.
There is no picture for Colville because he was not among the cadets who graduated from advanced twin engine training at Columbus, Mississippi.
However, somewhere along the line, he did become 2nd Lt. Colville. He also got a multi-engine rating because he ended up in the China-Burma-India theater flying as co-pilot of a C-47 transport with the 443rd Troop Carrier Group based at Dinjan, India.
The 443rd was tasked with moving troops, evacuating the wounded, and hauling a wide variety of supplies in support of the allied advance through the jungles of Burma.
Lt. Colville and the 443rd arrived at Dinjan on June 6th, 1944. Five days later, Leonard, his pilot, 2nd Lt. Fred Crawford, and their radio operator, Corporal Clarence Stowers were given a resupply mission to Burma.
That morning, their C-47 also carried a 3-man drop crew consisting of T/5 Harold Graham, T/5 Edward Hnizdor, and Cpl. Frank Plotski. It was the drop crew’s responsibility to get whatever cargo they were carrying out of the plane. On this day, they were wrangling sacks of food.
After taking off from Dinjan, the pilot headed southeast. The Burma border was fifty miles away.
The flight left early and by seven in the morning they were nearing their destination.
Ed Hnizdor described the weather as, “…good, with blue sky and sunshine“. Missing Air Crew Report – Aircraft 43-15403
Hnizdor was stretched out on sacks of food by a window in the rear of the plane. He reported the C-47 was flying at a low altitude when the pilot rapidly advanced the throttles and attempted to climb. The plane bellied into the side of a hill going up slope.
My father’s friend, twenty-four year old Leonard Colville, his pilot, the radioman, and two members of the drop crew died on impact. Miraculously, T/5 Ed Hnizdor survived.
Pinned in the burning wreckage by a jumble of food sacks, Hnizdor was rescued by a passing Chinese patrol.
Ed died in Chicago in 2006 of natural causes.
Adding up the losses
Less than a year and a half after leaving Bainbridge, five of the eight American cadets mentioned in O’Reagan’s letter were dead. One was a prisoner of war… Two if you count the guy to whom the letter was written. The oldest to die was twenty-four.
But in Columbus, at the beginning of 1943, all of that misfortune was still in the future.
For now, there was navigation to learn, and twin engine aircraft to fly, and Mississippi girls to dance with. Cadet Parks and his pals were having the time of their lives. Whenever these young aviators were out on the town, in a bar, at a USO social, or just walking down the street, it was only a matter of time before they were shoulder to shoulder, singing with joyous abandon…
- “Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
- Climbing high into the sun
- Here they come zooming to meet our thunder
- At ’em boys, Give ‘er the gun!
- Down we dive, spouting our flame from under
- Off with one helluva roar!
- We live in fame or go down in flame. Hey!
- Nothing can stop the Army Air Force!“
This, of course, was before they started to, literally, go down in flame.