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2nd Lt. Parks and the Martin Provisional Group left Walla Walla, Washington on Sunday August 1, 1943.
It had been almost sixteen months since my father first reported for duty in Washington, D.C. During that time he had trained at bases in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, and finally, Washington state.
In less than a year and a half, he had gone from learning to fly a single engine, open cockpit bi-plane to being the command pilot of the most advanced and complex four-engine aircraft of its day. Now, their training over, they were headed for combat in the skies over Europe.
Shortly before leaving Walla Walla, the 21-year-old-pilot wrote his grandmother in Atlanta:
” I feel a responsibility that’s been given me very heavily. There are 9 other men depending on me each time we take to the air and come in again. I am their immediate superior officer and must make many quick decisions on which their lives may depend. I want you to pray with me for help in making these decisions and presenting the proper leadership to these men. I hope that you’ll pray that we will all be able to do our respective jobs well and get back home as soon as possible.” – 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Letter to Mrs. E.G. Walton, July 18, 1943
Sometime shortly before leaving Walla Walla, while on a brief respite from training, 2nd Lt. Parks and his friend and fellow pilot, 2nd Lt. Silas S. Nettles, who was, unbelievably, two months younger than my father, were driving around the local countryside when they spotted a sign that read, “Puppies for Sale“. On a whim, the young men stopped.
Two Jack Russell Terrier pups caught their eye. Discussions were had, decisions were made, money exchanged hands, and two B-17 crews acquired mascots… Mascots their pilots promptly named, “Roger and Dodger“.
In military aviation jargon, the term “Roger” is used when communicating instructions over radio and indicates that the listener has received and will execute the instructions given by the sender.
During WWII, the phrase, “Roger Dodger” became popular as an irreverent form of the official phrase.
One version of the apocryphal story on the phrase’s origin goes like this: An Army pilot flying back from a very successful combat mission was given landing instructions, and feeling his oats, signed off with a cheeky, “Roger Dodger“. Immediately, the indignant sender of the instructions radioed back tersely informing the pilot that he was speaking to a long-serving, very senior staff officer and that, “In this man’s Army, there will be no flippant remarks on the radio“. The furious officer then solemnly informed the offender that he was going to track him down and see that he was promptly punished for his impertinence. At the end of this tirade, the young pilot reportedly radioed back, “Roger Dodger, you ol’ codger“.
It seems this story, or one very much like it, resonated with the two young pilots. The Parks’ crew adopted “Roger” and “Dodger” became the mascot for the Nettles’ crew.
Once in Topeka, 2nd Lieutenants Parks and Nettles were anticipating they would be assigned a pair of brand new B-17s. Two shiny, right off the assembly line, bombers which they would then fly to England… A trip that, in those days, was no where near as easy as the words, “fly to England” make it sound to our modern, travel-jaded ears.
The two pilots’ plan was to take the puppies with them to whatever combat base they were eventually assigned in the UK. Given how little they knew, on a day-to-day basis, about the Army’s actual intentions for them, the word “plan“, as they used it, had very little meaning in the conventional sense of the word.
Also, make no mistake, what they were “planning” was strictly forbidden… By the Army, by the Navy, and by the government of the nation into which they were going to attempt to smuggle the two dogs.
First Stop… Topeka
The bomber group had spent the last week of July at a base near Fresno, California flying out over the Pacific to get some experience with long flights over open water.
On Saturday night, July 31, 1943, immediately upon returning to Walla Walla, they were presented with orders informing them they were leaving for Topeka, Kansas the following day.
Sunday morning, August 1 was spent packing and filling out the necessary paperwork to clear the base. It was a process at which they had become quite skilled.
Sometime that afternoon, the thirty-five crews of the Martin Provisional Group along with the group’s commanding officers boarded a train bound for the 1600 mile journey to Kansas and the Topeka Army Air Base. Later that month, in a letter to his mother, 2nd Lt. Parks briefly described the trip:
“We came down through Denver but had no layover, just shot right on through.” – 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr., Letter to Mrs. Virginia Parks, August 12, 1943
Topeka Army Airbase
There is no record of how long the train trip from Walla Walla took but, the group most likely arrived in Tokepa sometime on Wednesday the 4th of August. Upon arrival, they were issued the following handbook and schedule… A schedule which began on Thursday, August 5th.
The cover of this document identifies the handbook as belonging the “Martin Group Volume-A“. Since there were thirty-five crews in the Martin Provisional Group and there are only seventeen crews listed in this volume, I assume there was a Volume-B handbook for the Group’s other eighteen crews.
The title of the handbook describes the Group’s time here as “Fourth Phase Training“. They would be here for less than a week, so whatever “training” they would get would be of the last minute, “Oh, by the way, don’t forget this or you might die” variety.
“SEVERE DISCIPLINARY ACTION WILL BE INFLICTED UPON ANY AND ALL COMBAT PERSONNEL, FOR ANY VIOLATION (OF) THE PROCESSING SCHEDULE.” Forth Phase Training Schedule and Handbook – Topeka Army Air Base, circa August 4th, 1943
Crews issued a B-17 to fly to Europe would spend approximately ten days in Topeka preparing themselves and their planes for the arduous crossing. Soon after arriving in Topeka, the pilots of the Martin Provisional Group found out they weren’t getting planes. That meant two things… Their stay in Topeka would be shorter and… They would cross the Atlantic in a slow moving convoy under constant threat of attack by German submarines.
Now, before you starting thinking, “Wow, too bad they didn’t get assigned planes“… In those days, a pilot and crew assigned a B-17 in Topeka, Kansas would then have to fly to Presque Isle, Maine, refuel, then fly to Gander, Newfoundland, refuel, then fly to either, a base in Greenland, or a base in Iceland, or both… Depending on what kind of weather they encountered over the North Atlantic… And then fly to Prestwick Airport in Scotland. During WWII, five percent of all military aircraft that attempted this crossing were lost.
In spite of what the air journey entailed, 2nd Lt. Parks seemed more than a little disappointed at this turn of events.
“We hoped we would get our planes there (in Topeka) but no luck so you can guess how we are going over.” – 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr., Letter to Mrs. Virginia Parks, August 12, 1943
Crews also found out on page 1 of the handbook that you had to carry your gas mask with you from six in the morning until five at night… Everywhere you went… Every day you were there. On Tuesdays you had to actually don your gas mask… Twice, once at 10:30 in the morning and once 2:00 in the afternoon… For thirty minutes each time. Everyone on the base had to wear their gas mask during these times… No matter where they were. I wish I had a picture of that.
Leather Flying Jackets and Bed Checks
Pages 1a and 1b (above) start off with the base dress code which clearly states, in no uncertain terms that leather flying jackets are not authorized for wear anytime off the base, nor are they authorized for wear on base when off duty, nor in the officer’s mess, theater, and post exchange during evening relaxation period.
Then, the next paragraph specifically covers the dress code for the base theater and even though the leather jacket prohibition was well and truly covered in the previous paragraph, it ends with the redundant admonition, “Leather jackets will not be worn at any performance.“
Apparently, these young airmen really liked wearing their leather flying jackets… Especially to the movies. I am only guessing but.. Since the leather flying jacket was for combat crewmen only, it made determining which base personnel were going to war and which were staying in the States a fairly simple task. And given the amount of testosterone walking around the base at any given time, it is not hard to imagine that words could be exchanged, and feelings could get hurt, and general melees could break out… Especially if you’re sitting around in a crowded base theater watching, for instance, a war movie…
The last paragraph on page 1b (above) informs the incoming airmen that “all members” of combat crews are to be in bed by 11 o’clock each evening and that there would be periodic bed checks.
For some reason, the creators of the handbook felt the need to underline the word “all” when describing which members of the combat crews to which this rule applied. One can only assume they had to add that emphasis because, sometime in the past, some members of some combat crews felt that the rules didn’t apply to them. Pilots… I’m looking at you.
This handbook page (above) lists all the locations to which B-17 crews might have to report, depending on their assigned position in the bomber. Gunners went to gunnery, pilots went to link trainers, everyone went to final clearance.
Crew Lists and Barracks Assignment
I have included the following pages for a few reasons. First and foremost, however dry, they are an integral part of the story.
Second, having spent months on end hunting for records relating to my parents’ military service, I am keenly aware of how important lists of names are for anyone researching their family’s involvement in the Second World War.
And finally, I have a general feeling that their names should be remembered. You don’t have to look at them all but just take a moment to say one or two names out loud. They all put themselves in harm’s way… For us.
From looking at the above list, it appears the sixty-eight officers from the seventeen crews in Group-A of the Martin Provisional Group were in the same Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (#248). Each crew’s pilot and co-pilot shared a room as did each crew’s bombardier and navigator.
The one hundred and two enlisted men from those seventeen crews were in barracks #211… In one big room.
When I was very young, I naively mentioned the seeming inequality of accommodations for officers and enlisted men to my father. He just shrugged and explained, “RHIP“. When I asked him what that meant, he grinned and said, “Rank has it’s privileges“.
I am pretty sure my father loved being a 2nd Lieutenant and I know for certain he couldn’t wait to be a 1st Lieutenant. Two weeks prior to arriving in Topeka, in a letter to his mother, he wrote:
“The recommendations for our promotions went in and were sent back because only 25% of the pilots could be promoted at one time. The whole thing’s being held up now trying to decide who the first 25% will be. I’ll probably arrive in England as a 2nd Lt. after all.” – 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr., Letter to Virginia Parks, July 18, 1943
On a side note about the above letter… Mentioning where they were headed was strictly prohibited… And my father went a step further and underlined the incriminating inclusion. It’s an odd anomaly because in all his other letters he carefully hints at but never actually directly reveals similar information. He must have been really steamed about that 2nd Lieutenant thing.
During WWII, a B-17 bomber carried a crew of ten. In Topeka, the newly arrived crews were driven out to the flight line and, one crew at a time, arranged in front of the same B-17 in the same pose, the six enlisted men kneeling, the four officers standing behind them. A photographer snapped their photo, they were hustled off, and the next crew was whisked into position.
I have seen a picture of the Nettles’ crew posed exactly the same way in front of the exact same B-17 with their mascot, Dodger.
The Parks Crew: Front Row (left to right)
Tail Gunner – S/Sergeant William Rollie Horn was married and from Carbondale, Illinois. At 36, he was, far and away, the oldest member of the crew.
There is a lot more to Horn’s story than I can tell in this episode. For now, suffice it to say, just because they were all members of what Tom Brokaw labeled, the “Greatest Generation“, that didn’t mean they were all heroes.
At a later date, William Rollie Horn will get an entire episode all to himself.
Armorer/Ball Turret Gunner – S/Sergeant Gordon A. Rodemerk, 27, was from Rochester, New York. Gordon left high school after 11th grade to become a machinist. When the war broke out, he was working for a tool and die company in Rochester.
I’m not sure how he managed it, but, on August 1, 1943, the day his crew was leaving Walla Walla, Washington for Topeka, Kansas, “Gordy” was in Rochester, New York getting married to Lynette Weber.
According to the newspapers, the bride was lovely in a white Velvaray gown, a fingertip veil caught to a seed pearl tiara, and carrying a colonial bouquet of white roses. Lynette planned to live with her parents until Gordy returned from the war… For which Gordy would have had to leave almost the next day to catch up with his crew in Topeka. I am assuming there would have been a lot of pestering from his crew mates about the wedding night.
Assistant Radio Operator/Waist Gunner – S/Sgt Frank E. Waizeneger, 26, was single and from Camden, New Jersey. “Wags” dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and just before the war, was working for a plumbing company in his hometown.
Mascot – Roger was born near Walla Walla, Washington and was less than a year old. He had, obviously, made the first leg of the journey undetected.
Radio Operator – T/Sgt Blakesly H. Seward was 23, single, and from Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. Like “Wags” Waizeneger, “Blakes” also dropped out of high school after the 10th grade. When the war started he was working as a laborer in a steel mill.
Assistant Engineer/Waist Gunner – S/Sgt Wesley Wright was 25, from Philadelphia, and single. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, “Wes” was almost halfway through his senior year at the University of Richmond.
Engineer/Top Turret Gunner – T/Sgt Glen W. Richardson was 25, single, and a high school graduate. Before enlisting the the Army Air Corps, he was working for a chemical company in Seattle.
Back Row (left to right)
Bombardier – 2nd Lt. Rudolf Joseph Albert Antoine LeBlanc was from Montreal, Canada and had been in that country’s Air Force prior to signing up with the U.S. Army Air Corps to become a bombardier.
My father never referred to LeBlanc without using all five of his names… “Rudolf… Joseph… Albert… Antoine… LeBlanc“…He always said the names slowly and distinctly, carefully pronouncing each with a slight French accent.
“Frenchy” was 23 and had married an American girl named “Clementine” in Shreveport, Louisiana. They met while Rudy was completing his bombardier training there.
LeBlanc’s pilot described him in a letter to his mother as, “Easy to get along with but excitable“. As you will see in later episodes, this won’t be the last time someone mentions the young French Canadian’s excitability.
Navigator – 2nd Lt. John William Sweeney was 22, single, and had grown up in Forest Park, Illinois outside of Chicago. A high school graduate, John and his father worked at a casket company. His father, Frank, framed the caskets and John spray painted them. Frank made $45 a week, John made $17. Joining the Army Air Corps and going off to war was definitely a step up financially… As long as you didn’t end up in a casket.
Co-Pilot – 2nd Lt. Earl Graham Bason was 23, a year and a half older than his pilot and commander. He had grown up in the small North Carolina town of Mebane, fifty miles northwest of Raleigh.
A high school graduate and textile worker, Earl had joined the Army Air Corps to become a fighter pilot. His current position as co-pilot of a four-engine bomber was definitely not what he had signed up for. For a more complete portrait of Earl, how he ended up where he was, and his feelings about the cards fate had dealt him, read: Watching Hogan’s Heroes with my Dad.
Pilot – 2nd Lt. Thomas Alvin Parks, Jr, 21, was born in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Before the war, “TAP” was enrolled at the University of Minnesota and halfway through his junior year. Unhappy in his studies and lacking a clear direction in life, World War II turned out to be just the ticket. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he quit the University of Minnesota and enlisted.
My father truly loved flying and really flourished under the structure, focus, and discipline that combat flight training required. And, ultimately, although he was the youngest member of the crew, when that fateful moment five miles over Nazi Germany finally arrived, and all of their lives were genuinely in peril, it would turn out that the men who served under 2nd Lt. Parks could not have been in better hands.
In the News
A quick look at the Kansas City Star newspaper for August 4, 1943, reveals that when 2nd Lt. Parks and his comrades arrived in nearby Topeka, the war news for the Allies was good.
The Americans and the British were advancing on the Germans in Sicily, U.S. forces were also gaining on the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, and in the Ukraine, the Russians continued driving the Germans back from Kharkov (now, “Kharkiv“). However, the front page story in that caught my eye was this one.
I have said it before and I will say it again… They just don’t write newspaper stories today the way they used to write them. I hope my dad read this story that August in Kansas while preparing to go off to war… He would have laughed out loud.
Thursday – August 5th, 1943
According to the schedule, they had to get up, get showered, get shaved, and get dressed in order to assembly in front of their quarters at 0430… That is 4:30 in the morning.
Then, they were allowed a leisurely 55 minutes for breakfast. After breakfast… From 5:30 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon… Processing.
Apparently, lunch was whenever you could grab something and eat it that didn’t interfere with the processing.
There was paperwork to complete, their equipment had to be checked, and additional equipment had to be issued…
One of the things the Army gave all officers was a Colt .45 pistol. My father enjoyed shooting it for practice but elected not to take it with him on missions. It was his considered opinion that, if he had to bail out over enemy territory, the odds of him getting killed parachuting into Nazi Germany wearing a gun far outweighed the potential damage he could do the the German war machine with a Colt .45 and seven rounds of ammo.
There was only one other item of additional equipment of which I am aware. I know about it because it’s issuance led my father to make a serious faux pas in a letter home to his mother… A faux pas for which she never forgave him.
The Government Issue Watch
An accurate chronometer is an important tool for pilots and during his training, 2nd Lt. Parks’ parents had bought him a very nice watch. During the processing in Topeka, the Army issued each pilot a cheap watch to take into combat. It was nowhere near as nice as the one my father’s parents had given him and, ever practical, he sent the nice watch home for safe keeping. Here’s how he informed his mother about the watch and its shipment home. See if you can spot his mistake.
“I sent home a suitcase from Walla Walla and one from Topeka. In the small one you will find a small leather shaving case. I put my watch in there since I was issued one which is expendable…” 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr., Letter to Mrs. Virginia Parks, August 12, 1943
The mistake was that word, “expendable“. My grandmother was nobody’s fool… If the government felt the watch was expendable, that meant the person wearing the watch was expendable… Which, of course, was the actual, unvarnished, and absolute truth… But you didn’t have so write it down for Christ’s sake… For your mother to read. Forty years later, she was still complaining to her grandson about that horrid sentence his father had written in that awful letter to her back in August of 1943.
I don’t know much else about the “processing” that took place on the 4th but I do know that there were two important pieces of paperwork that had to be completed.
Oh, and… if you don’t mind… Sign this…
Before heading into combat, every crew member had to execute a general Power-of-Attorney and… a Last Will and Testament. Seriously, they had to make out a Will. That must have been a pretty sobering moment for a room full of mostly twenty-something, hot-shots on their way to war.
The Power-of-Attorney gave 2nd Lt. Parks’ mother the ability to sign documents for him in his absence. The Will, in the event of the young pilot’s untimely demise, bestowed upon his mother all her only child’s worldly possessions, which, at that moment, largely consisted of a couple of olive drab duffel bags full of shoes, socks, underwear, and uniforms and a bank account with, at most, a few hundred dollars in it.
My father sent the Power-of-Attorney and his Last Will and Testament home in the same suitcase with the watch he returned for safe keeping. The enclosed Will only made his mother’s reaction the “expendable watch” letter worse.
Finally… As the schedule for August 5th shows… After a full day of processing, the combat crews were then required to attend a two-hour lecture by Captain Bailey in the War Room. There is no record of what Captain Bailey talked about but, whatever the subject… He talked about it for two hours… In the War Room… Right after they had all filled out their Wills… The perfect end to a perfect day… “Sweet dreams”.
Friday – August 6th, 1943
Reveille on the 6th was at 0600 which meant they all got an extra ninety minutes of sleep.
Then, after breakfast, navigators went to navigation check, bombardiers to bombardier check, gunners to armament check, and co-pilots, radio operators, and assistant radio operators went to radio check… Of the seventeen pilots in Group-A, nine also went to radio check, the other eight went to Link Trainer Check.
After lunch, the schedule was the same except the eight pilots who went to Link Trainers in the morning, went to radio check in the afternoon and the nine pilots who had done their radio check earlier in the day went to Link Trainer Check in the afternoon.
The Army was well aware that the very next actual flying these young men were going to do would be against a determined, well-trained, and experienced enemy completely committed to killing them. There was a whole lot of checking going on.
Among my father’s papers, there isn’t a record of the exact date he and the more than 350 other members of the Martin Provisional Group boarded the train to leave the Kansas processing center. The next recorded date I have is from the letter 2nd Lt. Parks wrote to his mother on Thursday, August 12, 1943 explaining about the suitcases and the watch. The letter was sent from Camp Patrick Henry, near Hampton Roads, Virginia… 1000 miles east of Topeka and exactly seven days after he had signed his Will.
Hampton Roads was the embarkation port where, towards the end of August 1943, 2nd Lt. Parks and 13,000 other American servicemen would board troopships bound for England. Crossing the North Atlantic on a troopship in a convoy hunted by enemy submarines would be the first time these young Americans would go into in harm’s way. It would not be the last time.