Practicing the Art of War: Episode 11: Combat

September 1943

On September 4th, 1943, Convoy UT-1, carrying 13,000 American troops, including my father and the more than three hundred airmen of the Martin Provisional Group, arrived in Scotland.

Within a day or two, the new bomber crews were at Combat Crew Replacement Center #11 at the airbase at Bovingdon just outside of London. Years later, my father would note that, in retrospect, he should have paid more attention to what the term ‘replacement crew‘ actually signified.

After a couple of weeks of lectures about the realities of air combat at CCRC #11, the replacement crews were assigned to bomb groups scattered across the East Anglia region of England.

On or about Tuesday, September 21st, 1943, 2nd Lt. Parks and his crew arrived at the 96th Bomb Group in the village of Snetterton Heath eighty miles northeast of London.

East Anglia

Historically flat and swampy, the East Anglia region of Great Britain has a long and storied past. The area was first recognized as a distinct region in the year 520 and for a brief period in the following century, East Anglia was the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. That brief moment of glory ended when East Anglia was mercilessly defeated by the Mercians and King Offa of Mercia had King Æthelberht of East Anglia unceremoniously beheaded. Actually, he could have been ceremoniously beheaded, the text books don’t really say one way or the other. All we know for sure is, Æthelberht lost his head and Offa was responsible.

By WWII, the marshes and fens of late King Æthelberht’s once proud and mighty kingdom had been filled in, dried out, and converted to what is, to this very day, excellent farm land that produces among other things, wheat, barley, potatoes, and sugar beets.

In 1942, the 8th Air Force arrived in England and began scouting for suitable locations for airfields from which they could send multitudes of heavy bombers to destroy the industrial might of the Third Reich. They took one long admiring look at the farms of East Anglia and immediately decided the area’s open and monotonously level topography was just the ticket.

While we’re on the subject of the topography and agriculture of East Anglia, permit me a brief digressional anecdote.

During the Second World War, farms in the region around the 96th Bomb Group, were widely known for producing vast quantities of Brussels sprouts. Since the vegetable’s introduction in England in the late 19th century, the people of Britain had become inexplicably fond of these… What are essentially just tiny cabbages.

American military personnel serving in England were, for the most part, unfamiliar with the Brussel Sprout but because of its local availability, the flight crews at the 96th were served a lot of them, on a very regular basis, mostly boiled. According to my father, boiled Brussel sprouts was not a popular menu item among his comrades. In fact, the dish was so universally unpopular and reviled that the pilots with whom my father served swore a solemn oath to one another, promising that if any of them were ever returning from a mission in a B-17 so badly shot-up they were forced to crash land it on a nearby piece of flat, East Anglian farmland, they would do everything in their power to put the big, heavy, four-engine bomber down, wheels up in a field of Brussel sprouts.

Snetterton Heath

Ancient documents show Snetterton’s place name was first mentioned in the year 1086, twenty years after the French led by William the Conqueror beat the English under Kind Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Eight hundred and fifty-seven years later, in September of 1943, when Lt. Parks first laid eyes on Snetterton Heath, the tiny village consisted of a pub, a post office, and a small, 700-year-old parish church which served a local community of less than two hundred people. Today, the village is simply called, ‘Snetterton‘ and currently boasts a population of two hundred and one.

The biggest change to the parish since the war is the addition of a popular, well-known motor car and motorcycle raceway built on the site of the old military air field.

As fans arrive for a big race at the Snetterton Circuit, those who are aware of the area’s history may take note of small weed-choked sections of concrete around the perimeter of the track. They are all that’s left of the three runways from which, eighty years earlier, my father and hundreds of young men just like him lifted off from a small East Anglian airfield in thundering formations of four engine bombers and flew across the English Channel to fight and die for democracy.

The airfield at Snetterton Health during WWII. The three runways in a triangle was a very typical layout for bomber bases in England. The top of the image is north. – Wikipedia
The 96th Bomb Group

The original thirty-eight crews of the 96th Bomb Group that came to England from the States began arriving in April of 1943. By May, the group was fully assembled and began flying missions on the 13th of that month.

For each mission, a bomb group would contribute a formation of twenty or so bombers.

My father’s arrival in Britain in September of 1943 was part of a dramatic expansion of the air war over Europe. Of the more than thirty crews of the Martin Provisional Group that had trained and traveled together since arriving in Walla Walla, Washington in mid-May of 1943, eighteen would be sent to the 96th. They would make up 40% of the forty-five new crews that arrived there that September.

That month, the 96th BG doubled in size and would begin sending two formations of around twenty planes per mission. In October of 1943, missions of over three hundred bombers were common. By late 1944, the 8th Air Force was mounting missions of more than one thousand bombers. Multiply the number of bombers on a mission by ten crewmen and you begin to understand how many young lives were at risk each and every time they flew into combat.

East Anglia is the bulging region on the upper right. The bomber bases are indicated by the circles, squares, and triangles. The square for the 96th Bomb Group is on the right a little less than halfway down the page. 303rd Bomb Group http://www.303rdbg.com

The 96th BG was divided into four squadrons, the 337th, 338th, 339th, and 413th. Each contained upwards of twenty B-17 crews. Shortly after arriving at the 96th, 2nd Lieutenants Parks, O’Dell, Nettles, Scarborough, and McDowell joined the 339th Squadron. The twelve officers of the Parks, Nettles, and Scarborough crews immediately laid claim to an unoccupied 12-man Nissen hut in the 339th’s living area and the friends settled in for the duration.

339th Bomb Squadron Insignia

When he arrived at the 96th, 2nd Lt. Parks had a total of five months of experience flying B-17s. His flight record for September 1943 shows he had accumulated 200 hours at the controls of the plane he was about to fly into combat over Europe. For comparison, to be hired by an airline to haul passengers from Boston to Miami with no one shooting at you, pilots are required to have 1500 hours of flight time.

2nd Lt. Parks Flight Record for September 1943 showing the only two days he flew that month.

When he arrived at the 96th Bomb Group, Lt. Parks had not flown one of the big bombers in almost two months. On the 27th of September, to knock off some rust and familiarize himself with the East Anglia landmarks that would guide him back to his base, he flew a three hour orientation flight. On the 28th, he flew another hour and fifty minutes, and on October 1st, he flew three hours and fifteen minutes. The next day, Saturday, October 2nd, he flew his first combat mission.

Thursday – September 23rd – The mission to Kerlin Bastard

Because of a four-day stretch of bad weather, this mission would be the 96th Bomb Group’s first since the arrival of the new crews from the Martin Provisional Group on or about the 21st of September.

That Thursday, the 8th Air Force was sending a little over 300 bombers to three different targets in France.

The 96th would join two other bomb groups, the 385th and the 94th in a sixty-three plane formation and bomb a German airfield just northwest of a French wide-spot-in-the-road called, Kerlin Bastard. Seriously, look it up on Google Maps. There is nothing there but a few farm houses and a patisserie called ‘Ty Cookies‘.

If you’re so inclined, and maybe hungry for a French pastry, you can visit Kerlin Bastard. It is right there where it has always been, on the southern coast of Brittany about a two-hour drive west northwest of Nantes.

An Internet search for information about Kerlin Bastard turns up a lot of entries… Pages and pages of entries. Unfortunately, every one of them is somehow about the allies bombing the nearby airfield or about the Germans flying from the airfield during WWII. I found out, for instance, that the great English actor, Leslie Howard, who played Confederate Officer and Georgia plantation owner, Ashley Wilkes in the 1939 blockbuster, Gone With the Wind, was killed in June of 1943 when the KLM Royal Dutch airliner he was taking from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol, England was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by German fighters flying out of the airfield at Kerlin Bastard.

Of Kerlin Bastard itself, the Internet says next to nothing. It is equally silent on the origins of the location’s intriguing name. However… it does bear noting that although the modern French word for bastard is bâtard, the old French version of the word is bastard. So, we did learn something.

Back at the 96th Bomb Group, as this was the first combat mission the newly arrived crews would see take off, it is likely they were up watching their comrades depart. And later that day, when the bombers were scheduled to return, it is not unreasonable to assume they were at the field anxiously counting the returning planes.

There was another reason they might have been at the field that day. A 26-year-old pilot from Texas, Lt. Ruben William Neie and his crew were flying their 25th mission.

At that point in the war, once airmen completed twenty-five missions, their combat duty was finished and they were sent back to the States. The mission requirement would go up later in the war but in September of 1943, if you got through twenty-five missions, you were headed stateside.

Neie, a tall, blonde, blue-eyed former high-school teacher had joined the Army in 1941, three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. By the summer of 1942, he was a B-17 co-pilot. In May of 1943, he was given his own crew and began flying combat missions over Europe.

June 27, 1942 – Fort Worth Star-Telegram – Newspapers.com

Ruben had a close call back in mid-August on a different mission over France. A round from a German fighter’s 20mm canon exploded in the cockpit, slightly injuring Lt. Neie. When he landed back at Snetterton, the pilot went to the base hospital, had his wounds tended to, and returned to flight duty the next day. They were like that.

Now, a month-and-a-half later, the Neie crew’s combat nightmare was almost over. If they completed this last round-trip, they would be one of the first crews at the 96th to survive an entire twenty-five mission tour. The whole base would have been on pins and needles.

That day, after take-off, the 96th had an unusually high number of aborts. Of the twenty bombers that took off, seven were forced to return to base before crossing the English Channel. It didn’t count as an official combat mission until you crossed the Channel into airspace where people were actively trying to kill you. Lt. Neie’s bomber was not among the seven aborts. They were on an official mission. So far so good.

Of the remaining thirteen B-17s from the 96th that bombed the German airfield at Kerlin Bastard, twelve returned safely. One went down with the loss of the entire crew.

At the 96th, as observers on the ground anxiously watched the returning bombers approach the field, one B-17 peeled off from the formation, dove down on the deck, and buzzed the tower shooting signal flares from every open window in the plane. Lt. Ruben Neie and his crew had survived the war. They were going home.

For my father, the 21-year-old as yet untested combat pilot from Georgia, this would have been a very positive sign.

Formation Flying

I came across the image below during my research visit to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. It shows the twenty-one plane ‘A‘ squadron the 96th Bomb group contributed to the 8th Air Force’s mission against Duren, Germany on October 20th, 1943. 2nd Lt. Parks was flying in the high element of that squadron on the far right of the image.

This is an original document from the pilots’ briefing on October 20, 1943. It shows the make up of the 96th BG’s ‘A’ Squadron for that day . The pilot’s name is on the horizontal line. The numbers below the pilot’s name are the last three digits of his plane’s serial number. – Original Document/National Archives

In the same high element, fifty feet above and fifty feet ahead of him off his left wing was his friend, Lt Bruce O’Dell while another long-time friend, Lt. Ed McDowell flew a similar fifty foot separation below and behind him also off his left wing.

Lt. Parks’ friend since they entered the Air Corps, 2nd Lt. Henry ‘Junie‘ Marks, is flying in the “tail-end Charlie’ position on this mission. The lowest and last plane in this kind of formation was very vulnerable to enemy fighters. This position was also called ‘Purple-heart corner‘ or, more ominously, ‘Coffin Corner’

The red circles indicate Lt. Parks’ position in the squadron the 96th BG sent on the October 20, 1943 mission to Duren, Germany

As you can see in the above diagram, there were twenty-one large four-engine bombers flying in a box of sky 400 yards wide, 300 yards high, and 200 yards deep. This was the Group Formation.

Next came the Wing Formation made up of three Group Formations.

The Wing formation consisted of approximately 58 to 64 bombers. Larger missions would be made up of multiple Wing formations flying one behind the other at two to three mile intervals.

To form a Wing, the two squadrons from the 96th would join a squadron from the 388th Bomb Group out of Knettishall about six miles from Snetterton Heath.

A base’s bombers would take off in 30-second intervals then climb, often through cloud cover and at a specified altitude, they would circle their bases until their bomb group’s squadron or squadrons were assembled. Once assembled, they would head for the Wing rallying point.

Although B-17s were equipped with radios, security demanded that they be used only in dire emergencies. Bombers slotted themselves into the giant circling formations visually using tail markings and a system of color coded flares that could be fired from the aircraft. Flare codes changed from mission to mission. Confusion was not uncommon.

Once formed, the Wing would then home in on a designated radio beacon that marked the assembly point for all of the Wings participating in the mission. At that point the individual Wings would fall in one behind the other at three-mile intervals to assemble into one large formation.

As the large formation assembled over the coast of England, the spares would fill in for any aircraft from their Bomb Group that had to abort before leaving the coast. Mechanical problems, equipment failure, or a crew member’s sudden illness were the most common reasons a bomber would abort a mission. After the formation headed across the English Channel, any remaining spares would leave the giant formation and return to their bases. From that point on, any bombers that aborted left gaps in the formation that the remaining bombers were required to close by adjusting their positions.

By 1945, formations of over one thousand bombers were a regular feature of the American effort to defeat Nazi Germany. During the time of those enormous raids, 2nd Lt. Evelyn Cole, 2nd Lt. Parks’ future wife, was stationed in France at a U.S. Army Mobile Hospital. Years after the war, she would tell her son that the bomber formations were so large it would take an hour for them to pass overhead.

Tight formations served two purposes. As everyone dropped their bombs based on the lead bomber, a tight formation produced a tight pattern of bombs. Remember, this was way before today’s ‘smart’ bombs. Guided only by gravity, these bombs were very, very dumb. They simply fell where they were dropped. That’s one of the reasons the 8th Air Force was sending so many bombers… Dropping a lot of bombs slightly increased the chances that a few might hit something important.

The second purpose of a tight formation was defensive. Of the ten-man crew on each B-17, everyone but the pilot and co-pilot had a machine gun to fire at incoming enemy aircraft. In theory, a tight formation meant a lot of concentrated firepower covering a relatively small area.

Tragically, tight formations also meant that, sometimes, B-17s accidentally flew into one another, or dropped bombs on one another, or shot up one another. That’s just another shitty reality of of war… There are a lot of sad, senseless ways for very young people to die in addition to getting killed by the enemy.

It is important to remember, all of this flying and forming and adjusting was often being done in radio silence, in less than ideal weather conditions by pilots with less than a year’s experience at the controls of a four-engine bomber. Pilots who were, for the most part, in their early twenties… And this was all before they got to the Continent and strangers started shooting at them.

Sunday – September 26th

The 96th led the Wing formation in a successful attack on a German airfield near Rheims, France. No one got shot down. No one got hurt. The newly arrived crews would have been encouraged by these results. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

Monday – September 27th

In the dawn hours of September 27th, the inhabitants of Snetterton Heath were shaken from their sleep by the roar twenty-one B-17s from the 96th Bomb Group taking off and beginning to assemble for a mission to bomb the port of Emden, Germany.

During WWII, in England, it was the policy and practice of the 8th Air Force that a newly arrived pilots would fly their first mission as co-pilot for a combat experienced pilot and that pilot’s equally experienced crew.

On the 27th, dad’s friend, 2nd Lt. Cecil Blaine Fisher flew his first mission as co-pilot to Flight Officer, Alfred Drabnis.

Cadet Cecil Blaine Fisher – Carlstrom Field – Arcadia, Florida – Circa September, 1942

2nd Lt. Fisher had enlisted in Washington, D.C. at the same time as 2nd Lt. Parks. Cecil’s name appears on a set of orders my father received from the Air Corps dated April, 4, 1942. (See below)

Orders for Aviation Cadets to report for pre-flight training – April 4, 1942

Fisher and Parks would train and travel together from April 11, 1942 until their graduation from fight school and their promotion to 2nd Lieutenant on February 16, 1943 in Columbus, Mississippi.

2nd Lt. Cecil Fisher – Columbus Army Flying School – Columbus, Mississippi – Circa February, 1943

After graduation, 2nd Lieutenants Parks and Fisher were assigned to Transition Training where they learned to fly B-17s. Lt. Parks went to Smyrna, Tennessee, Lockbourne, Ohio, and Walla Walla, Washington before being sent overseas with the Martin Provisional Group. Fisher trained in different locations around the States and came overseas by a different route but they both arrived in England within a couple days of one another and reunited at the same small airbase in East Anglia flying with the 96th BG in the 339th Squadron.

On that Monday morning, twenty-eight year old, Cecil Fisher would probably have been delighted to find out he had been assigned to fly as co-pilot with the crew of F/O Alfred Drabnis.

Twenty-five-year-old Drabnis was from Pottsville, Pennsylvania. He had enlisted in the Army in 1939 and was stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 when Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese. Uninjured, he was sent back to the States for flight training.

When Cecil Fisher was assigned as his co-pilot, Alfred had been flying combat missions for five months. He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with an Oak Leak Cluster and, like his fellow pilot, Lt. Ruben Neie two days before, Alfred was about to complete his 25th and last mission. There would be much celebrating upon their return.

October 10, 1943 – The Pottsville Republican – Pottsville, Pennsylvania –Newspapers.com

The only thing out of the ordinary that morning was that the Drabnis crew would not be flying their usual B-17, ‘Daisy June IV‘ (also known as ‘Bomb-Boogie‘). At the mission briefing, they found out they had been assigned to fly, “The Queen of the Skies“. Daisy June had been flying combat for nine months, The Queen had only been in service four months. For crews in desperate need of an edge, there were different ways of looking at this. In The Queen‘s favor, she was most certainly the newer, fresher aircraft. However, Daisy June had a long (in terms of aerial combat) proven history of survival which could be a sign… To those seeking signs… That she might be imbued with an extra dose of luck.

Daisy June IV/Bomb Boogie at the 96th Bomb Group Circa July, 1943. The fifteen bombs painted on the nose of the B-17 indicate she has flown 15 combat missions.

Emden is a seaport city in northwest Germany. During the war, it was targeted in an effort to eliminate Germany’s industrial output and ability. Military and industrial targets were very specific but, as I pointed out earlier, the high explosives they were dropping were very dumb. Over the course of two years, allied bombing would destroy 80% of the city.

On the 27th, the 8th Air Force sent 308 bombers of which 246 bombed the target. The 96th BG contributed a single squadron of twenty-one B-17s. From take-off to landing, crews would be in the air for a little over six hours. With any luck, they’d be back in time for lunch.

Flight crews would have been awakened around two in the morning for breakfast and briefings. Ground crews would already be loading fuel and bombs. Pilots, Navigators, Bombardiers, and gunners went to individual briefings.

Trucks would take crews to their planes where they would prepare their aircraft for combat and don all the heavy cold-weather gear (some of which was electrically heated) required to do battle in an open, unpressurized B-17 flying five miles above the earth.

There were oxygen system checks and intercom system checks, navigators would lay out and review their charts, radio operators would check settings and codes issued at their briefing, gunners would mount their guns and distribute ammunition throughout the plane, and pilots and co-pilots would run their cockpit check lists ensuring their plane was ready to fly.

As co-pilot for F/O Drabnis’ crew, Lt. Cecil Fisher must have felt pretty lucky to be aboard The Queen of the Skies that morning. Alfred and his crew had done this combat prep twenty-four times now and they knew what they were doing. One more round trip and they were all going home.

Aside from not being assigned to fly their trusted Daisy June IV, there was only one other real negative that morning. Drabnis and The Queen had been assigned to fly in the low element of the 96th BG’s squadron. Low elements were notoriously prone to receiving a lot of attention from enemy fighter. On the positive side, he was flying in the low element’s lead position and not in the rear… A position ominously known as, ‘Coffin Corner‘.

Diagram showing the position of F/O Drabnis’ B-17 on the mission to Emden on September 27th, 1943

Of the twenty-one planes the 96th put up on the 27th, two aborted before reaching the Emden. Of the remaining nineteen B-17s… Eighteen returned. The lucky streak of Alfred Drabnis and his experienced crew had ended. For 2nd Lt. Cecil Fisher, their newly arrived co-pilot on his first mission, his lucky streak never got started.

Over Emden, the B-17s had just finished dropping their bombs when enemy fighters slashed through the formation. Drabnis began calling out their positions over the intercom for his gunners to fire upon. The one that took out The Queen of the Skies attacked her head-on.

After the mission, several airmen from planes behind The Queen reported that as the fighters made their attack, she peeled off from the formation with two engines on fire and began a slow and what appeared to be controlled downward spiral.

However, ‘controlled‘ was the last word The Queens’ crew would have used to describe the situation inside their crippled bomber.

Three rounds from the burst of 20mm cannon fire that took out two of the bombers four engines had penetrated crew areas. One round shattered the plexiglass nose of the plane striking the navigator, 22-year-old 2nd Lt. Lester Arthur Leonard in the chest. Lester looked at his bombardier, 22-year-old 2nd Lt. Stewart Edward Cooper, pointed at his wound, and died.

In the cockpit, two additional rounds crashed through front windscreen. One hit Alfred Drabnis’ in the face killing him instantly. The second round exploded in the cockpit seriously wounding 2nd Lt. Fisher.

Fisher’s pilot was dead, his left foot and left hand were mangled, the planes’ controls were inoperative, two engines were on fire, the bomber was spiraling earthward, and Cecil, now the ship’s commanding officer, could not give the order to bail out because the intercom system had been destroyed.

Fortunately, the surviving members of the Drabnis crew didn’t need that order. They had seen enough doomed B-17s fall out of the sky to know it was high time for them to go. Quickly clipping their parachutes to the chute harnesses each crew member had donned before boarding the ship, they began tumbling into the sky. The top turret gunner and the radio operator dove through the still open bomb bay. The ball turret and waist gunners exited through the starboard hatch just aft of the waist gun positions. The tail gunner went out through the emergency exit in the tail.

Because of his wounds, Cecil struggled to get his parachute on but finally managed to clip it in place. Dragging himself out of his seat and past the body of his pilot, now slumped forward over the controls, Cecil dropped through the opening behind the cockpit leading to the crawlspace under the flight deck that provided access to the nose of the plane.

Once in the nose of the aircraft, after confirming the navigator was dead, Cecil exited The Queen through the port side hatch which Stewart Cooper, the bombardier had used to make his escape moments before. It was just a little after ten in the morning.

The eight young men who bailed out of The Queen of the Skies were all taken prisoner and six were immediately sent to POW camps for the duration of the war. Badly wounded, Lieutenants Fisher and Cooper were sent to German hospitals where Fisher would lose his left foot and Cooper his left leg to amputation. After recovering, they were both sent to POW camp, Stalag Luft I. Two months later, when 2nd Lt. Parks’ luck ran out, he would be sent to the same camp where he was, once again, reunited with Cecil.

In mid 1944, because of the severity of their injuries, both Fisher and Cooper were returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange. Both airmen were sent to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. for treatment and recovery. Once at Walter Reed, Cecil honored a request my father had made just before Fisher left the German POW camp. From his hospital bed, Cecil called my grandparents, Virginia and Thomas A. Parks, Sr. to tell them that he had seen their only child in Germany and he was doing fine.

During his stay at the hospital, my grandparents visited Cecil frequently. After he was released, he became a regular and honored guest in their home in nearby Accokeek, Maryland. They never forgot him.

One last thought about luck. During his recuperation at Walter Reed, Cecil met and married Lt. Jean E. Morton, a 24-year-old Army Nurse from Iowa who was doing a tour of duty at the Army hospital. Even though Cecil passed away twenty years before Jean and even though she remarried after his death, her 2002 obituary contained a paragraph detailing her marriage to the young bomber pilot and his service to America. She never forgot Cecil either.

On that same tragic day in September, sometime after the bombers left the 96th for Emden, 2nd Lt. Parks took off in a B-17 for the first time in two months for a three-hour orientation flight over East Anglia.

Later that day, when the bombers returned from Emden, he would suffer the twin shocks of finding out that Alfred Drabnis and his crew had gone down on their last mission and that his friend Cecil Fisher had gone down with them on his very first mission. This would have been a sobering counterpoint to the joyous celebration just two days earlier for the Neie crew and a blunt introduction to the real terror of war… Unemotional, uncaring, unfeeling fate.

Tuesday – September 28th , 1943 – Another Training Flight

Because of weather over Europe, there was no mission on the 28th but Lt. Parks and his crew took off and flew around the local area for almost two hours. They could be called for a mission at any time now and the young pilot wanted as much flying time as he could get.

Wednesday – September 29th, 1943

Bad weather. No mission. No flying. Just waiting.

Thursday – September 30th, 1943

Bad Weather. No mission. No flying. Just waiting.

Friday – October 1st, 1943

No mission.

Weather had kept everyone grounded for the last two days of September but cleared enough on the 1st of October for Lt. Parks to go up again… Twice. The first time for an hour and the second time for two hours.

As he squeezed in those three extra hours of flight time, my father had no way of knowing that at the headquarters of the 8th Air Force, a plan was being put in motion that would send him into combat the very next day.

Saturday – October 2nd, 1943 – First Contact

Once the 8th Air Force decided a mission was on, they would send the details to the Division commanders who would send them on to the Wing commanders who would send them to the Bomb Groups for which they were responsible.

Generally, the orders would arrive sometime after midnight. Ground crews would be alerted first. They would get breakfast and begin preparing the bombers. Usually, sometime around three in the morning, air crews would be roused from their sleep and told there was a mission on. The October 2nd mission was slightly different. The bombers wouldn’t be taking off until after lunch. So, Lt. Parks would get a full night’s sleep before being informed that his time had come.

October 2, 1943 – An after-mission debriefing form from the Emden mission showing C.L. Farris, Pilot and T.A. Parks, Co-pilot. This was photographed at the National Archives and Records Administration facility at College Park, Maryland during my research visit in September, 2022. NARA

For his first mission, Lt. Parks was assigned to fly with a combat-tested pilot, 2nd Lt. Claude Leroy Farris, Jr. My father quickly learned that in this instance, the term “combat-tested” might be a little overstated.

Lt. Farris had enlisted right after graduating from high school in his hometown of Carlsbad, New Mexico. He became a 2nd Lieutenant in April of 1943, so, technically, 2nd Lt. Parks, who was commissioned two months earlier in February of 1943, outranked him. Farris started his B-17 training in July of 1943, so Lt. Parks literally had three more months more training and flight time than his pilot. And Lt. Farris arrived at the 96th only a week or so before my father so he had, at the most, two missions under his belt. Then there was the startling fact that Lt. Farris was a year younger than his 21-year-old, never-been-in-combat-before, co-pilot. As he suited up for his first combat mission, none of this information would have been reassuring to my father.

At breakfast, in recognition of the fact that this might be their last meal ever, crews flying that day’s mission would get fresh eggs instead of the usual powdered eggs. It was pretty much the least the Air Force could do. No, seriously, they made a list of what they could do for men going off to die and “fresh eggs for breakfast” was right at the bottom. This is not to say the men didn’t appreciate the fresh eggs, they did.

After breakfast, the crews went to the mission briefing. This is where they all found out at the exact same moment what the target was that day. Given what had happened just three days before to Alfred Drabnis and his crew, finding out they were going back to Emden could not have been good news to anyone.

After the general briefing, pilots and co-pilots, Navigators, Bombardiers, Radio Operators, and gunners went to individual briefings specifically tailored to their jobs.

On October 2nd, the 96th’s ‘A‘ squadron would lead the attack in the middle altitude position while the ‘B‘ squadron would fly the high position to its right and a twenty-four plane squadron from the 388 Bomb Group out of Knettishall, flew the low position to its left.

At the pilot’s briefing, Lieutenants Farris and Parks got the first good news of the day, they were flying in the “B” group. Because of their altitude, high groups, generally got less attention from enemy fighters than the lower groups

After their briefings, the bomber crews would ride trucks out to their planes and begin preparing for the battle ahead. At the appointed hour, a single flare from the control tower would arc out over the field and the engines of the 96th Bomb Group would roar to life.

For the rest of the war, residents of Snetterton Heath would be subject to the earth shaking, cup and saucer rattling sound of more than forty heavy bombers taking off and assembling over their tiny and once upon a time bucolic village.

After take off, the Farris and Parks B-17 would join the Wing formation of more than sixty bombers, each carrying three tons of bombs and turn for Germany. Three miles behind them would be another sixty plane Wing formation and three miles behind them would be another sixty plane Wing formation and so on until there were almost three hundred and fifty bombers headed for Emden carrying one thousand tons of high explosives.

Starting with this first raid in October of 1943 and continuing until the end of the war a little over a year and a half later, the 8th Air Force would mount larger and larger missions dropping more and more bombs on Nazi targets until Germany’s ability to wage war simply ceased to exist.

Over Emden, when the bomber formation arrived at the point where they would turn on their bomb run, they discovered that the target was completely obscured by clouds. At 8th Air Force Headquarters almost any commander would tell you this made precision bombing more difficult. Almost any experienced bombardier would tell you this made precision bombing completely fucking impossible.

About half-way through the bomb run, the commander of the group in the lead plane decided they were not lined up correctly on the target and ordered the sixty-plane formation to turn back to the initial point and start the bomb run over again. This order came while the formation was directly over enemy defenses, deep in enemy territory.

As co-pilot, with no real flying to do, 2nd Lt. Parks’ job at that moment mostly consisted of looking out the window watching for incoming enemy fighters, grimly anticipating an anti-aircraft shell exploding somewhere in their plane, and cursing the commander who was ordering them to turn around and do the bomb run again.

Fortunately for all concerned, during the entire time they were over Emden, there was hardly any anti-aircraft fire coming up from the ground and there were no enemy fighters at all. They made the second pass, dropped their bombs through the cloud cover, and blew up random stuff in and around the city of Emden.

During the war, the Germans refereed to Allied bomber crews as, ‘Terrorfliegers‘ (Terror Flyers). My father never doubted the necessity of the air war, and was proud of his service, however, having participated in missions like the one to Emden, he also understood the German’s position.

The after-mission interrogation form from the October 2nd mission (pictured above) shows, Lt. Farris’ report. The young pilot indicates they didn’t observe any results from the bombing and when asked how many enemy fighters they saw, he reports, ‘0’.

For the 8th Air Force, the mission to Emden was not one of its great successes but for the men of the 96th, any mission that everyone came home from was a cause for celebration.

There wouldn’t be many celebrations after Emden.

Following up on Farris and ‘Wildfire
This picture of the Farris crew was taken at the 96th BG sometime in late 1943. Twenty-year-old 2nd Lt. Claude L. Farris, Jr. is in the front row on the far left. Sgt. Arthur Siciliano is in the back row on the far right.

On November 5th, 1943, the 96th Bomb Group went on a mission to Gelsenkirchen, Germany. 2nd Lieutenants Farris and Parks both flew the mission, each in command of their own B-17.

That day, the Farris crew was flying a B-17 named, ‘Wildfire’. Shortly before the target an anti-aircraft burst took out Wildfire’s #2 engine. The #2 engine is the one closest to the fuselage on the pilot’s side of the plane. When the anti-aircraft round exploded, shrapnel penetrated the cockpit and seriously wounded Lt. Farris in several places in his left arm.

Although bleeding profusely, the twenty-year-old pilot insisted on staying at the controls until Wildfire’s bombs were dropped. Then, he passed out. Bombardier, 2nd Lt. David Kemper Helsabeck, the twenty-three-year-old son of a North Carolina mail carrier, came up from the nose, got his pilot out of his seat, dragged him back to the front of the plane, and began administering first aid.

In the meantime, Wildfire’s twenty-two-year-old co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Charles Payton Ray was doing everything he could to control the bomber and head for home some 250 miles west of their present position. Ray had a lot to deal with. Unbeknownst to the crew, the same anti-aircraft burst that had taken out the pilot had also wounded Lt. Ray. However, the young Oklahoman stayed silent about his injuries rather than bother the crew with the unsettling news that both of the men who knew how to keep the bomber in the air were badly hurt.

Fortunately, the young co-pilot had help from his flight engineer, T/Sgt. Arthur Frank Siciliano.

Flight engineers were also the top turret gunners on the B-17. Their gun position, just aft of the cockpit, gave them immediate access to the pilot and co-pilot should their engineering duties be required.

Arthur was a first generation Italian American from Massachusetts and the son of a mason. Before the war, Arthur and his younger brother Tom had worked at a gas station so he knew his way around an internal combustion engine. At 5’5″, T/Sgt Siciliano may have been the shortest guy on the plane but he was almost certainly one of the oldest… In four days, if he lived that long, Arthur would celebrate his 29th birthday.

In the crew picture, Arthur is standing the back row on the far right. Looking at the picture of Siciliano, with the brim of his ball cap turned up, you can almost hear the Sergeant growling, “These lieutenants may be hot-shot pilots and fine leaders of men but they don’t know dick about internal combustion engines“.

Arthur Siciliano was just the guy Lt. Ray needed at that moment.

For the next hour and a half, Lt. Ray and Sgt. Siciliano would try desperately to keep the bomber’s remaining three engines operating as they nursed ‘Wildfire‘ homeward. Miraculously, in spite of losing two more engines, they made it back to the 96th. With three engines out and two punctured tires, somehow, the two men got the bomber on the ground in one piece… Relatively speaking.

Both Farris and Ray recovered from their wounds and continued flying until they were shot down on the 31st of January, 1944 on their 19th mission. The entire crew survived and became POWs. Farris and Ray would both end up at the same POW camp Lt. Parks had been sent to a month earlier after he was shot down on November 29th, 1943… While flying the same, ‘Wildfire‘ that Farris had been flying just three weeks earlier on his almost fatal November 5th mission to Gelsenkirchen.

My father re-named ‘Wilfdire‘ the ‘Ramblin’ Wreck‘ partly because he had attended Georgia Tech his freshman year and partly because that is exactly what she was.

COMING SOON – Practicing the Art of War: Episode 12: Black Thursday

Author: Tom Parks

After 35 years of stand-up comedy and acting, I have retired to play golf and write for the sheer pleasure of it. With no schedules to keep, I am left with an abundance of time to follow both interests and distractions wherever they lead me. Life is pretty swell.

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