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

Practicing the Art of War: Episode 10: Everything They Taught You is Wrong

©2022 Tom Parks All Rights Reserved

The Train South from Scotland

Twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr and the nine men under his command arrived in Greenock, Scotland on Saturday, the 3rd of September, 1943. They and the more than thirty crews of the Martin Provisional Group had spent the previous twelve days crossing the North Atlantic on a troopship and were undoubtedly glad to be back on solid ground.

There are no records of the timing of their next move but the crews were soon on a train headed south for Combat Crew Replacement Center #11 at Bovingdon just outside of London.

Today, that train trip takes between nine and ten hours. It was probably longer in 1943 but then, as now, it would have required a change of trains in London.

The only things I know for certain are, they rode on a train and they were in Bovingdon by the 8th of September.

First Letter From England

V-Mail – 2nd Lt. Parks to his mother – September 8, 1943 – Bovingdon, England

The last letter 2nd Lt. Parks sent his mother was a month earlier when he arrived at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. Five days after arriving in Scotland, her son wrote the above letter from Bovingdon :

Somewhere in England

Dear Folks

My mail has caught up with me and your letters were very welcome. I think your letters and regular mail come through just as fast as the others. Joe was very lucky to get home again. I met another boy who graduated with us just before we left. We had a rather pleasant trip and uneventful. England is just about what we expected and very interesting. No sightseeing yet. Girls seem to be the same everywhere. Hope Dad is all fixed up by now.

Love to Everybody,

Tommy

Your V-mail wasn’t photographed but (??) as you mailed it.

V-Mail

During WWII, to save shipping space and speed up delivery of mail to and from America’s fighting forces, the government instituted V-Mail. (short for Victory Mail).

Letters were written (preferably typed) on a special form (pictured above) which was then photocopied on a roll of microfilm, 1600 letters to a roll. When the rolls got to their destination, they were printed and distributed.

The Contents

The restrictions of V-Mail suited my father’s spare writing style very well. You had to get everything on the one sheet so there was not a lot of room for detail.

There was just room enough to let his mother know that the North Atlantic crossing was, “pleasant and uneventful”, and that, even though he hadn’t had time to do any sightseeing, he had found out that girls in England were pretty much the same as girls everywhere. I am at a loss as to what to make of that assessment. Is it positive? Negative? Is he happy? Sad? Worldly wise and weary?

As for opportunities to meet ‘girls’ while they were at Bovingdon, there would have been a local dance or two and at least one trip into London.

Among my father’s papers from WWII there was the following picture. On the back is the name, ‘Gladys Copeland‘ and the address of a large public housing complex in London that still exists. Dad was in England for three months before getting shot down. During that time, he would have had several opportunities to go to London on leave. I do not know anything about Gladys, how or when my father acquired her picture, or why he kept it. I include it because, somehow, it is part of the story. But, for now, the nature of Ms. Copeland’s relationship with 2nd Lt. Parks remains a mystery.

Gladys Copeland – London, England

Towards the end of the letter, 2nd Lt. Parks also expresses hope that his father is ‘fixed up‘… In 1943, my grandfather had all his teeth pulled. That is one of my clearest memories of him, that full set of false teeth that he was overly fond of removing and showing to his goggle-eyed and giggling grandchildren.

‘Joe’

The ‘Joe‘ mentioned in the letter was 2nd Lt. Joe Gay. Joe had been with my father during his early training through when they graduated and were commissioned 2nd Lieutenants together in Columbus, Mississippi seven month earlier. They were close friends and because their mothers both lived in the Washington, D.C. area, they had introduced Edna Gay to Virginia Parks so each would have a travel companion for the trip to Mississippi for the graduation ceremony.

The two mothers became fast friends and for the duration of the war visited each other regularly. Both women were deeply attached to their sons and having someone to talk to who understood their fear and apprehension was a Godsend.

After my grandmother’s visits with Joe’s mother, her letters always reflected what she and Edna discussed…

Edna says Joe writes her long letters all the time…”, “Edna says Joe got a leave to come home and see her right before going overseas…”, “Edna says Joe got a medal, did you get a medal?“.

My father and Joe were very close friends but I believe he probably learned to regret he and Joe had gotten their mothers together.

The two pilots’ paths separated after graduation from flight school but by the fall of 1943, they were both flying combat missions over Europe. 2nd Lt. Parks would fly with the 96th Bomb Group based near the village of Snetterton Heath and 2nd Lt. Gay would fly with the 306th Bomb Group, based seventy miles due west of his friend near the village of Thurleigh.

Twenty-three year old, 2nd Lt. Joseph Millard Gay, Jr August 1943. It is likely this picture was taken during his last visit home before heading for England. His mother would have insisted that Virginia take a copy and so, it ended up in the box of old letters.

You can read more of Joe Gay story in, Learning the Art of War: Episode 4: Advanced Flight. A word of warning, the story doesn’t end well.

Everything You Were Taught is Wrong

Combat Replacement Crew Center #11 was created early in 1943 when the 8th Air Force began to realize that the requirements of actual combat were different from what was being taught in the States. Among other things, formation flying had to be adjusted as did air-to-air gunnery and bombardier training. A two-week series of lectures was instituted for newly arrived crews where they were introduced to the realities of the war as it was being fought in Europe.

When 2nd Lt. Parks arrived in England, the number of missions airmen needed to complete before being sent home was twenty-five. My father’s single memory of Bovingdon was a lecture given by a rather dour officer who bluntly informed the fresh faced and eager pilots that, at the current loss rate, their chances of going home were pretty much zero. Welcome to England.

Leaving Bovingdon
C.C.R.C.#11 – Bovingdon, England – September 20, 1943

In their day, Officers’ Clubs featured a bar and offered an informal setting where men in command could relax in a way they never could when enlisted ranks were present. The clubs, victims of changing social values, mores, policies, and politics, no longer exist.

The above receipt lists the four officers of the Parks’ crew, Lt. T. Parks, Lt. J. Sweeney, Lt. E Bason, and Lt. J. LeBlanc.

Dated September 20, 1943, it shows that each man was charged 2 Pounds 2 Shillings for use of the Officers’ Club & Mess for the month of September, 1943. I assume this was a prorated charge covering the approximately two week period from arrival at the base until their departure for the 96th Bomb Group and was issued to settled their account before leaving the Combat Crew Replacement Center. If my calculations are correct, they each paid about $5 US for the use of the club for the time they were there.

If I am right about the receipt being a settlement of their bill just before departing Bovingdon, 2nd Lt. Parks and his crew probably boarded a train and headed for Snetterton Heath and the 96th Bomb Group on Tuesday the 21st of September, 1943.

On Monday, September 27, 1943, 2nd Lt. Parks would take-off in a B-17 from Station 138 at Snetterton Health, home of the 96th Bomb Group. He spent a half-hour observing someone else flying the plane, then took the controls, flew an additional three hours, and landed back at the 96th. It was his first time flying since leaving Walla Walla, Washington almost two month before and five days before he would fly his first combat mission.

NEXT: Practicing the Art of War: Episode 11: Combat

Practicing the Art of War: Episode 9: Shipping Out

©2022 Tom Parks All Rights Reserved

For Clarification…

In this narrative there is a ship named the “Argentina” and there is a port in Newfoundland, Canada named “Argentia“.

In those two words, the difference of that second “n” has been the cause of much confusion online and in my research. For a while… a LONG while, I thought the convoy which took my father to England had gone by way of Argentina. I couldn’t understand it… It made no sense… Yet, there are sources online that firmly attest to that.

After much reading and cross-referencing, I finally got it straightened out. I am writing this so, hopefully, you can avoid any of the considerable consternation I endured during my early reading on this subject.

I must point out that, even as I write this, spell check continues to insist that there may be a problem with the word, “Argentia“. Every time I write it, spell check politely but persistently hints that, perhaps, I meant to write, “Argentina”?

In this narrative, ArgenTINA is the ship and ArgenTIA is the port in Newfoundland.

Argentia, Newfoundland and the two Dildos

During World War II, Argentia was home to a U.S. Naval Station which opened in 1941. Two years prior to my father’s arrival there, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met at the station for three days to “discuss war strategies and logistics once the U.S. joined in the war“. – Wikipedia/Naval Station Argentia

Just to be clear… This meeting about how America was going to wage the war took place four months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Argentia is on Placentia Bay on the southeastern coast of Newfoundland. For reference, the port is about sixty miles southwest of the small village of Dildo and the nearby, and even smaller, village of South Dildo. From my online research, the slightly more than 1200 residents of Dildo seem quite proud of their town which, by the way, is home to the Dildo Brewing Company.

I assume the 200 residents of South Dildo migrated there when the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Dildo became just too much to bear.

When I looked online, I was not surprised to find out there were several explanations for the origin of the town’s name… There would almost have to be.

A Bit of Luck

2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr and the B-17 aircrews of the Martin Provisional Group sailed for England in late August of 1943.

The information I got from my father about the crossing was sketchy at best. He remembered the year and the month and that the convoy landed in Greenock, Scotland.

The only other information he provided was, during the voyage, he played a lot of craps and won more than he lost, but that was it. That was all the information I had. For all I knew, the convoy could have stopped in South America on the way.

Fortunately, the Royal Navy came to my rescue.

During WWII, the British Admiralty kept a daily war diary. In it they recorded, among other things, orders and communications related to troop dispositions and movements. The diary was declassified in 2012 and I stumbled upon it in online at Fold3.com.

My Admiralty War Diary research at Fold3 also led me to a war diary for the Norfolk Naval Operating Base as well as the ship’s logs from two American Navy vessels that served as escorts for the convoy that carried my father to Scotland.

Another bit of luck occurred while I was doing an online search for the word string, “Martin Provisional Group“. That search led me to a book called, 388th Anthology: Tales of the 388th Bombardment Group (H) 1942-45 authored by Richard Singer.

The book is a compilation of individual stories written by airmen who served with the 388th Bomb Group during WWII.

The story from the anthology containing, “Martin Provisional Group” was written by James Warner, the co-pilot on 2nd Lt. Richard Obenschain’s crew. Remarkably, not only were Warner and Obenschain both in the Martin Provisional Group… 2nd Lt. Obenschain was a friend of 2nd Lt. Parks. Growing up, I heard both my parents mention his unusual last name many times. More than likely, my father knew James Warner as well.

The Obenschain crew, January 1944, Knettishall, England. Pilot, Richard Obenschain (2nd from right) Co-pilot, James Warner (3rd from left)

After arriving in England, the Obenschain crew was assigned to the 388th Bomb Group at Knettishall and the Parks crew was assigned to the 96th Bomb Group at Snetterton Heath. The two tiny English villages were only twelve miles apart (six as a B-17 flies). It would have been very easy for the men to continue the friendship that had developed during crew training in Washington state and their travels to England.

To my delight, in his contribution to the anthology, Warner revealed the name, of the embarkation camp to which the Martin Provisional Group was assigned before going overseas, “Camp Patrick Henry“, as well as the name of the ship on which the group sailed… the “S.S. Cristobal”.

From there it was just a matter of looking for references to the Cristobal in the Admiralty War Diary during late August and early September, 1943.

There were plenty.

August 9th to 11th – Camp Patrick Henry

The Martin Provisional Group had boarded a train and left the overseas processing center in Topeka, Kansas sometime between the 7th and the 9th of August, 1943. They were headed for Camp Patrick Henry near Newport News, Virginia.

Patrick Henry had opened late the previous year as a staging center for troops headed to the European Theater of Operations. By the end of 1944 over 750,000 American servicemen and women would pass through its gates headed overseas.

It is most likely the Martin Provisional Group arrived at Patrick Henry sometime between the 9th and the 11th of August.

2nd Lt. Parks wrote his mother from the camp on Thursday, the 12th to update her on his travels:

“When we finished processing at Topeka, we left for the port of embarkation. That’s where I’m writing from now. All I can tell you is that it’s on the eastern seaboard.” 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr, – Letter to Mrs. Virginia Parks – August 12, 1943

At home, in Accokeek, Maryland, my grandmother had no way of knowing that her only child was just 140 miles away. Camp Patrick Henry was her son’s closest posting since he joined the Army Air Force eighteen months earlier. The last time she had seen him was during his leave in early May.

Lt. Parks mentions in the same letter that he is in a hurry to send it because he is afraid if he doesn’t get it posted, she won’t hear from him until he gets to wherever it is they are sending him. He was right, it would be almost a month before he wrote to her again.

Friday – August 13th – Admiralty War Diary

On Friday the 13th, the Admiralty orders His Majesty’s Ships, Dart, Erne, Whimbrel, Clare, Banff, and Fishguard to escort duty for convoy “UT-1” sailing for Scotland a week later on August 20th. In these original orders, the vessels to be escorted are the troopships, S.S. Monticello, S.S. Cristobal, and S.S. Argentina plus two tankers, the S.S. Canyon Creek and the Esso Harrisburg.

Camp Patrick Henry

The troops at Patrick Henry have been assigned to the camp for a length of time loosely defined by the Army as, “from when you got here until whenever we tell you you’re leaving”. That meant they were were now actively engaged the Army’s favorite pastime, “hurry up and wait”. Currently, they were deep in the waiting portion of the game.

From this day onward, for operational security, the troops going overseas were restricted to the base and unable to send mail or make phone calls. Until they sailed, their daily routine would revolve around eating, sleeping, gossiping, grousing, and gambling. This routine would turn out to be perfect practice for the routine they would adopt once aboard the troopships… With one notable addition… Vomiting.

Sunday – August 15th – Camp Patrick Henry

At Patrick Henry that Sunday morning, there would have been church services to attend during which earnest military chaplains would speak fervently of duty to God and Country while solemnly assuring their young congregants that, in this great endeavor, He was on their side.

Church would have been followed by lunch and an afternoon round of gossiping, grousing, and wild speculation.

Monday – August 16th – Norfolk Naval Operating Base War Diary

On Monday evening there was an incident at the Norfolk Naval Base involving one of the two tankers assigned to convoy UT-1. According to the Norfolk NOB War Diary, it could have been very bad:

“At 2000 (8pm), the SS Canyon Creek, while being docked at berth 33, ripped a 15 foot hole above the water line in the port quarter of the MATAGORDA which was tied up at berth 35. This incident came very near being a disaster. The sea plane tender, MATAGORDA, was struck on her depth charge storage and the impact caused several of the depth charges to tumble onto the deck. The S.S. Canyon Creek, an oil tanker, due to the collision, spilled gasoline onto the deck of the MATAGORDA. Providentially, there were no worse results than the damage directly caused by the contact. The MATAGORDA is now undergoing repair at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth.”

USS Matagorda

Gasoline and depth charges on the deck… I imagine someone in authority had a pointed and extremely one-sided conversation with the Captain of the Canyon Creek.

Interestingly, the Matagorda’s ship’s log calmly reports that the collision happened twenty minutes earlier and created a hole five feet larger than what was reported in the Norfolk NOB War Diary .

The ship’s log does not mention gasoline or depth charges or providential intercession.

Equal Treatment – A Quick Digression

While looking through the Norfolk NOB War Diary for the month my father arrived in Hampton Roads, I came across a couple of entries related to the struggles for equality by certain segments of American society. Struggles which, almost 80 years later, are still ongoing.

“The Norfolk Navy Yard increased its force of twenty policewomen by an additional ten. These women are taking the place of men and their duties include, patrolling regular beats and standing guard duty at gates and buildings. They are slated to take over traffic duties and man radio patrol cars. At Police Headquarters they serve as Desk Sergeants and fill various other jobs.” August 2, 1943 – Norfolk Naval Operating Base War Diary

This is just another positive example of how World War II was rapidly turning traditional male/female roles on their head.

So many men left for war, employers were forced to hire women to fill positions traditionally held by men. And, even though the women were not paid as much the men they replaced and were largely let go as soon as the men returned from war, that small taste of financial and personal freedom was heady stuff and significantly quickened the pace of the women’s movement.

On the other hand, an entry from the same diary later that month indicates that race relations in America were continuing at their maddening, one-step-forward-three-steps-back pace.

As a reminder, during WWII, all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces were segregated. However, in 1942, due to growing manpower shortages, the Navy was forced to open their enlisted rates to all qualified personnel.

That progressive move led to this regressive entry in the NOB Diary:

“Lt. C.M. Dillon, D-V(S), USNR, under orders from BuPers (Bureau of Navy Personnel), called on the Commandant to discuss problems in connection with the future distribution of Negro personnel inducted into the Naval Service.” August 20, 1943 – Norfolk Naval Operating Base War Diary

It would be another five years before equal treatment and opportunity in the military was codified. On July 26th, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which stated that, “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.

And so, once again, one step forward.

Admiralty War Diary

On the same day the S.S. Canyon Creek bumped the USS Matagorda and, according to the NOB War Diary, nearly blew up the Norfolk Naval Base, the British Admiralty issued orders (below) for the twelve ships of convoy UT-1 to leave Hampton Roads, Virginia for Greenock, Scotland on the following Friday, the 20th of August.

Admiralty War Diary Convoy UT-1 – August 16, 1943

The ships were:

S.S. Cristobal (During WWII). This is the ship that would carry 2nd Lt. Parks and the men of the Martin Provisional Group
S.S. Argentina (1939)
S.S. Santa Paula (1932)
S.S. Monticello (1942) was eventually deleted from the UT-1 convoy and reassigned to a different convoy sailing out of New York City.
S.S. Canyon Creek
Esso Harrisburg
HMS Dart (1943)
HMS Erne
HMS Whimbrel
HMS Clare (1941)
HMS BANFF Copyright: © IWM. Original
HMS Fishguard
Tuesday – August 17th – Admiralty War Diary
British Admiralty War Diary – August 17, 1943The sailing dates is changed

On the 17th, for reasons that the War Diary does not explain, the largest ship in the convoy, the S.S. Monticello was deleted from UT-1 and ordered to replace the S.S. (John) Ericcson in a convoy labeled UGF 10 sailing out of New York City the following day.

The Admiralty also moved the sailing date for the UT-1 convoy from August 20th to the 21st. This change provided the troops at Camp Patrick Henry an additional 24 hours of rumor-filled lock down.

Wednesday – August 18th – Camp Patrick Henry

Eating, sleeping, gossiping, grousing, and gambling.

Thursday – August 19th – Camp Patrick Henry

Eating, sleeping, gossiping, grousing, and gambling.

Friday – August 20th – Hampton Roads

UT-1 would be the first large scale movement of American troops specifically intended for the much anticipated invasion of Europe that would take place in June of the following year.

And so, on Friday the 20th, 13,000 American servicemen and women boarded three ships whose combined pre-war passenger capacity was less than 1000. Their quarters were going to be pretty tight.

It is worth mentioning here, that, in December of the following year, my mother, then, 2nd Lt. Evelyn Cole and the Mobile Army Hospital to which she was assigned would sail aboard the legendary Queen Mary from New York City to the same Scottish port her future husband had sailed the previous year. For her crossing, that single ship carried 11,000 servicemen and women… There will be more on 2nd Lt. Cole’s crossing and experiences during World War II in future episodes.

Back in Hampton Roads, on the 20th of August, 1943, the 13,000 troops sailing on convoy UT-1 were loaded onto trucks and buses along with all their gear for the fifty-mile journey to the port of Hampton Roads. There, the three troopships were loaded as follows:

S.S. Argentina6450 Troops
S.S. Santa Paula3336 Troops
S.S. Cristobal3214 Troops

The Martin Provisional Group was assigned to the smallest of the three ships… The S.S.Cristobal.

Built in 1939, the Cristobal was owned by the Panama Railway Company. Before the war, she had sailed as as a cargo ship capable of carrying two hundred passengers. For convoy UT-1, her retrofitted cargo holds would enable her to carry over three thousand more souls than her pre-war maximum.

Troops on the Cristobal were going to cross the North Atlantic sleeping in thousands bunks stacked in windowless cargo holds. And,… 2nd Lt. Parks and his friend, 2nd Lt. Nettles had smuggled two puppies aboard.

Saturday – August 21st – From HMS Dart

Sometime, well before dawn on the 21st, Convoy UT-1 slipped its moorings and departed Hampton Roads.

Aboard the troopships, the passengers were beginning a daily routine that would not vary in any appreciable way until the convoy reached its destination.

As they had been doing since they arrived at Camp Patrick Henry, the troops would mostly eat and sleep and talk. For the vast majority, this would be their first ocean voyage. They could go on deck for fresh air and sightseeing but, with a few brief exceptions, the scenery was always the same… Vast unchanging stretches of the rolling, cold, grey North Atlantic.

Before lunch on the first day, there were problems with the escorts.

HMS Erne, Clare, and Fishguard return to port

The first message from HMS Dart was sent to the Admiralty at 11:30 (211130Q) in the morning and the second at 6:31 (211831Q) in the evening. The first two numbers in the strings in parentheses indicate the day of the month, the next four digits are military time, and the “Q” indicates the time zone. It this instance, Quebec Time… The military designation for Eastern Standard Time… Which would have been the convoy’s local time at that moment.

For the rest of this narrative, I have translated military 24-hour time into the more familiar, civilian 12-hour am/pm format.

11:30am: The first message indicates that HMS Erne and HMS Clare are returning to port because of unspecified “defects“. The message further indicates the two ships expect to arrive back at Norfolk Naval Base at 10:30 that evening. That estimated return time would indicate the convoy was approximately nine hours into their voyage when the first “defects” were discovered.

I say, “first defects” because…

6:30pm: Seven hours after the first message, the HMS Dart sent a second message to the British Admiralty indicating that HMS Fishguard had also been declared”defective” and was returning to port. This left convoy UT-1 with just three escorts… Instead of the intended six.

All of this happened during daylight hours and could not have escaped the notice of the troops being transported. By dinner they would all have been aware that before the end of their first day at sea, half of the warships protecting them from predatory German submarines had turned around and headed home.

This turn of events would have provided much about which to gossip and speculate.

Sunday – August 22nd – From HMS Dart
UT-1 location 30+ hours into the voyage

8:51am: The Admiralty radios HMS Dart informing her that the necessary repairs have been performed on HMS Clare, she has sailed, and expects to rejoin convoy UT-1 two days hence, on the morning of the 25th.

That was the good news. The bad news… His Majesty’s Ships Erne and Fishguard would require extensive repairs and neither ship would rejoin the convoy. UT-1 is ordered to proceed to Naval Station Argentia in Newfoundland and wait there for reinforcements.

Noon: The Senior Officer of UT-1’s escort group radios the Admiralty from HMS Dart that the convoy is 159 miles out of Norfolk sailing NE for Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, Canada, 1200 miles away. He further informs the Admiralty that he expects the convoy to arrive at their moorings at Naval Station Argentia on Thursday, August 25th around six in the evening.

The escorts’ S.O. also mentions in this dispatch that the convoy has slowed down due to the lingering effects of a hurricane somewhere in the Atlantic. These “lingering effects” could not have been good news for any troops susceptible to seasickness.

Tuesday – August 24nd – From HMS Dart

After three uneventful days at sea, positions radioed to the Admiralty from UT-1 show the convoy and her escorts, Dart, Banff, and Whimbrel, 123 miles from Argentia with the HMS Clare about 200 miles behind and closing.

The Admiralty has been informed by the Canadian Navy that it can send His Majesty’s Canadian Ship St. Francis or Columbia to Argentia for convoy escort duty by the 28th. However, the Canadians are firm, the convoy can have one of these ships or the other… Not both.

Thursday – August 26th – USS Humboldt War Diary
Argentia, Newfoundland. The USS Humboldt docked at Argentia. Most of the other ships in convoy UT-1 would have spent their time in Newfoundland at anchor outside the small port.

10:29pm: The American seaplane tender, the USS Humboldt docks in Argentia. She has sailed up from Boston carrying aircraft parts and transporting naval personnel bound for other duty assignments in the European Theater of Operations.

In Argentia, the Humboldt will take on water and extra depth charges and join convoy UT-1 as an escort.

USS Humboldt

Friday – August 27th – S.S. Cristobal

The three troopships and the two tankers would have been at anchor outside Small Placentia Bay, the tiny harbor that served the Argentia Naval Station. From the deck of the Cristobal, 2nd Lt. Parks would have been able to see the comings and goings of the ships that were to escort convoy UT-1 as they arrived and were serviced and re-provisioned at the port.

Saturday – August 28th – More Reinforcements
HMCS St. Francis

By early in the morning of Saturday, the 28th, the promised Canadian ship, the HMCS St. Francis has arrived in Argentia, along with a second American ship. The previously mentioned USS Humboldt has been joined by the USS Matagorda… The same ship in which the S.S. Canyon Creek ripped a twenty-foot hole when they were both back in Norfolk just twelve days earlier… Awkward.

USS Matagorda joins convoy UT-1 in Argentia

And, finally, there was the surprise, last minute arrival of the previously impossible-to-repair-in-time, HMS Fishguard.

HMS Fishguard

Convoy UT-1 now consisted the following ships:

That meant the convoy now consisted of 13 ships. To some this number might be a problem but the military is not, generally, given to superstition. All the Admiralty knew was, they had assembled this thing and it was time to get it moving. However, I am pretty sure someone among those 13,000 passengers counted to 13… And then commented on it and then… Well, there would have been talk.

7:00am: The ships of UT-1 began making ready to sail.

1:30pm: The convoy clears St. Mary’s Light on the southeastern tip of Newfoundland and leaves the relatively protected waters of Placentia Bay. They are now sailing at 15 knots toward the northern tip of Ireland. For the next six days the convoy’s troopships and tankers will be prime targets for lurking German submarines.

As I said previous, I don’t have a lot of detailed personal information about what 2nd Lt. Parks and his friends and comrades in the Martin Provisional Group did and experienced during the crossing.

However, online, there is an excellent first person account of a troopship crossing in 1944 by the 100th Infantry which provides a general idea of what conditions may have been like aboard the S.S. Cristobal and the other two troopships in UT-1. It’s eye-opening.

Coincidentally, one of the ships mentioned in that account is the S.S. Monticello, the ship that was briefly assigned to UT-1 before being detached and reassigned to a different convoy.

Sunday – August 29th – USS Humboldt Ship’s Log

Throughout the crossing, the Humboldt shadows the convoy off the starboard flank of the S.S. Cristobal. The USS Matagorda is on the port side of the convoy about midway from front to back of the formation.

While on deck, the Cristobal’s optimistic passengers would have been reassured to see the HMS Humboldt, 1000 yards away, on station, ready to protect them from any submarine attack.

For the pessimists aboard the Christobal, the Humboldt’s presence would have been a bleak and constant reminder that there was a lurking, unseen enemy out there desperate to sink an American troopship… or two… or three.

According to the Humboldt’s log, the first full day at sea was uneventful. The ship’s General Quarters alarm was sounded at 8:09 in the evening but it was just a drill and after forty-eight minutes the crew was released from the exercise.

Monday – August 30th – USS Humboldt Ship’s Log

10:06am: Aboard the Cristobal, any passengers on deck might have heard the Humboldt’s General Quarters alarm sound and shortly afterward seen the British ship’s gunners engage in some firing practice. General Quarters drills and gunnery practice were a routine part of daily life on all the escorts sailing with UT-1.

However… It wasn’t always a drill.

A little after lunch that same day, passengers aboard the Cristobal would have, once again, heard the General Quarters alarm and then witnessed the American seaplane tender make some dramatic and unusual maneuvers.

1:30pm: The cause of the commotion on the Humboldt was Seaman 2nd Class, George Anthony Landre, Jr, a passenger being transported to his next duty assignment. Seaman 2nd Class Landre had, somehow, managed to fall off the deck of the USS Humboldt and tumble into the U-boat infested and bone chillingly cold waters of the North Atlantic.

As Seaman Landre struggled with his new circumstances, the Humboldt’s crew was called to General Quarters, a series of sharp maneuvers were executed, engines were stopped, and lines were thrown to the 19-year-old red-head from Chicago. George was hauled back aboard uninjured and, just sixteen minutes after declaring “Man Overboard”, the Humboldt was headed back to its escort position in the convoy.

For observers on the Cristobal, it would have been just what they needed… Something new and different about which to gossip and speculate.

Convoy UT-1’s general route across the North Atlantic after leaving Argentia and the approximate spot where Seaman Landre went overboard.
Tuesday – August 31st – USS Matagorda & Humboldt Ship’s Logs

The morning of the 31st is mostly quiet. The convoy continues sailing at 15 knots performing a defensive zig-zag pattern to provide some protection from marauding submarines.

In the late afternoon, the day got busier.

4:19pm: The USS Matagorda’s radar reports a disappearing contact two miles astern.

4:20pm: One minute later, the Matagorda sounds battle stations.

4:22pm: Two minutes later, the Matagorda sonar reports a sound contact at a range of 600 yards.

4:26pm: Six minutes after sounding Battle Stations, the Matagorda drops four depth charges in what the ship’s log entry breathlessly describes as an “urgent attack“. The entry closes with the perfunctory notation that the results of the attack were “negative”.

Later that evening, off the S.S. Cristobal’s flank, it was the USS Humboldt’s turn.

9:28pm: The Humboldt’s sonar reports a sound contact at a range of 1500 yards. General Quarters are sounded and the ship maneuvers to attack.

9:41pm: Humboldt drops five depth charges. The sonar contact is lost.

10:10pm: Humboldt changes course to investigate a radar contact at a range of seven miles. The contact turns out to be their fellow escort ship, HMS Banff.

10:29pm: The ship is secured from General Quarters and everyone not on duty or too adrenaline buzzed from the General Quarters alarm goes to bed for the night.

Wednesday – September 1st – USS Humboldt & USS Matagorda Ship’s Logs

The convoy continues to zig-zag at a speed of 15 knots.

On the escorts Humboldt and Matagorda, it is a day of General Quarters drills. The Humboldt adds a session of gunnery practice..

Thursday – September 2nd – USS Humboldt & USS Matagorda Ship’s Logs

Thursday was very much like the previous day with General Quarters drills and gunnery practice on both American ships.

From my research, it is quite clear that the Matagorda’s C.O., Commander A. W. Wheelock, was quite fond of sounding the General Quarters alarm very early in the day. For the previous five mornings in a row the crew of the Matagorda had to hit the deck running at 5:30, 5:10, 5:04, 5:11, and 4:51. This routine of early morning General Quarters drills continued until the Matagorda was in port.

Conversely, aboard the Humboldt, Commander T. B. Neblett never sounded General Quarters before 10 in the morning unless there was some kind of actual perceived threat.

I’m not making any judgement here about this difference in approach to crew training and command and I am certainly not implying that one officer was better than the other. All I’m saying is, during this particular crossing, I think the crew of the Humboldt probably got a better night’s sleep.

Friday – September 3rd – USS Humboldt Ship’s Log

At the beginning of their seventh day at sea since leaving Newfoundland, the convoy was now about 100 miles off the northern coast of Ireland. For German U-boat captains, this area was widely known as a very target-rich environment.

9:22am: The USS Humboldt is still sailing 1000 yards off the S.S. Cristobal’s starboard flank when she gets a submarine sound contact at a distance of 3800 yards. Commander Neblett sounds General Quarters, and immediately begins maneuvering for an attack on a German predator.

9:46am: Twenty-four minutes after going to General Quarters, the Humboldt drops five depth charges set to explode at 50 and 100 feet underwater. The contact is lost.

9:50am: Four minutes later, they regain the contact, now at a distance of 1000 yards. Humboldt begins maneuvering for a second attack.

9:56am: Perhaps reasoning that, after the first attack, the U-boat captain, seeking safety, would have taken his sub deeper, Commander Neblett orders five depth charges set to explode at a depth of 200 feet and drops them on the fleeing enemy.

10:05am: Nine minutes later, the Humboldt begins steering to resume it’s escort position in the convoy.

10:23am: The last entry for this incident reads, “Secured from General Quarters… Contact identified as fish.”

Later that afternoon, the Humboldt crew got another quick adrenaline rush…

2:55pm: An aircraft is sighted.

2:57pm: General Quarters are sounded.

3:10pm: The USS Humboldt secures from General Quarters after the aircraft is identified as a British Patrol bomber.

6:15pm: The five ships and eight escorts of convoy UT-1 pass another convoy consisting of forty-nine ships and six escorts.

I am only guessing but, the relatively high proportion of escorts to ships in UT-1 may have had something to do with the very large contingent of American troops the convoy was carrying. However, as I said, that is just a guess.

A little over an hour after passing the larger convoy, the USS Humboldt and the USS Matagorda are ordered to detach from convoy UT-1 and proceed, respectively, to the ports of Barry Roads and Pembroke in Wales.

Convoy UT-1 is 180 miles from their final destination. They are entering the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland and it is a short sail to the entrance of the Firth of Clyde which will take them all the way to the Scottish port of Greenock.

In 10 hours, they will be safe.

Saturday- September 4th – The Admiralty War Diary
Greenock, Scotland

9:06am: Thirteen days after leaving Hampton Roads, Virginia, the troopships of UT-1 are reported securely docked in Greenock, Scotland.

The coastal village of Greenock is well over 300 years old. The spot has been known as a safe anchorage for over 800 years. From the deck of the S.S. Cristobal, the calm blue waters of the Firth, the old village, and the surrounding green hills would have been a welcome sight.

As the Americans disembark, this will be the first time any of them have stood on solid ground in almost two weeks.

The Martin Provisional Group was almost immediately put on a train headed south for Combat Crew Replacement Center #11 at a former RAF base near the village of Bovingdon just northwest of London.

For 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr, and the B-17 crews of the Martin Provisional Group, the three weeks at Bovingdon in early and mid-September, 1943 would be remembered years later as a golden time. They hadn’t been assigned to Bomb Groups yet so, even though there were a lot of classes and lectures, there were also a few dances and a rare pass to London, but, most importantly, during that time, there were no combat missions and none of them were dying.

By the last week in September, all of that would change.

Coming Soon: Practicing the Art of War: Episode 10: Everything They Taught You is Wrong

Practicing the Art of War: Episode 8: Processing

©2022 Tom Parks All Rights Reserved

To War

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

“Roger Dodger”

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.

Roger and Dodger (right) confront two other puppies in a photo taken at the Washington state residence where Parks and Nettles stopped on a whim. The picture at the beginning of this post is of Dodger and was taken at the same location. July 1943

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.

One of the innumerable forms that had to be filled out and signed before being allowed to move on.

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.

circa August 4, 1943

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.

Welcome?

“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

The handbook never spells out what the “Disciplinary Action” would be for a violation of the processing schedule… It just promises that the action would be “inflicted” and that it would be “severe”.

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

Gas Attack

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.

Activities

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.

Uniforms
It was important to be properly attired at all times, even when participating in chemical warfare instruction.
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.

Crew #17-16

The Parks’ Crew and Roger – Topeka Army Air Base circa August 6, 1943

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.

A little further research revealed that Lustig often portrayed himself as a nobleman’s son, had a brother known as “Count” serving time in Alcatraz for selling some poor fool a money making machine, and was himself well known to the authorities as a notorious confidence man.

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
Crew Schedule – August 5, 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.

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.

The shipping information for the small suitcase containing the watch that 2nd Lt. Parks sent home from Topeka right before he left the States for England and the war in Europe.

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.

Both documents were witnessed and signed by 19-year-old, Frederic Charles Admans from West Haven, Ct., 24-year-old, Robert J. Filipowicz from Milwaukee, and 29-year-old, Walter Joseph Sulka from Chicago. Their names do not appear on the crew lists, so I assume they were based in Topeka and were part of the processing team.
Witness, Robert Filipowicz, had attended Marquette Law School and that may have been the reason he was involved with this part processing. However, that is purely conjecture. I found his picture (below) on Ancestry.com.
Robert J. Filipowicz – Senior picture from Marquette University in 1942, a year before he witnessed the signing of my father’s Will in Topeka, Kansas.

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
Crew Schedule -August 6, 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.

Leaving Topeka

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.

COMING SOON: Practicing the Art of War: Episode Two: Shipping Out

Learning the Art of War: Episode 7: Crew Training, Girls, and the Hoarder

©2022 Tom Parks All Rights Reserved

After nine grueling months of training, the US Army Air Force gave my father and his fellow pilots a 14-day leave. 2nd Lt. Parks traveled from Lockbourne Army Air Base in Ohio to his parents’ home in Accokeek, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

On Sunday, the 9th of May, the young Lieutenant’s mother and father took him into Washington for one last outing before he left for the war.

Sunday May 9th, 1943. Virginia Parks and her only child stand in front of the Bartholdi Fountain near the U. S. Botanic Garden in Washington D.C.

The headlines in the Baltimore Sun that Sunday would have been encouraging.

As they strolled the grounds of the United States Botanic Garden, they had no way of knowing the war would last two more years and just how personally it was going to touch the three of them.

The Train

Union Station in Washington D.C. during WWII.

In those days, the entire country moved by train. It was a truly isolated community that didn’t have some nearby access to rail service.

2nd Lt. Parks had been ordered to report for duty at the Army Air Base at Moses Lake, Washington “no later than 0900” on Saturday, May 15, 1943… But first, he had to see a girl in Minneapolis.

So… On Monday, May 10, 2nd Lt. Parks went to Union Station in Washington, D.C. and boarded a train bound for Chicago. Eighteen to twenty-four hours later he arrived in Chicago’s Union Station and switched to a train headed for the Twin Cities.

The Great Northern Depot in Minneapolis where the reunion took place.

The Girls… Bette and Gerry

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, my father had been attending the University of Minnesota and was dating Betty “Bette” Bugbee. Almost two years older than my father, Bette was an extremely good-looking red-head and a druggist’s daughter from a small town north of Minneapolis who dreamed of a career in show business. She would end up in New York City, modeling, teaching acting, and garnering a couple of mentions in Walter Winchell’s gossip column. Including the one below which links 25-year-old Betty with 52-year-old former heavy weight champion of the world, Jack Dempsey.

Bette and my father had what is best described as a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship. Judging from letters home while attending the University of Minnesota , it appears, my father couldn’t afford the kind of evenings out Bette felt she deserved. From his later letters it appears, during the entire first year of his training, their relationship was definitely off.

But, now, on his way to Washington state, there was a planned meeting in Minneapolis. This would be the first time they had seen one another since my father left school to join the Army in December of 1941.

In December of 1943, Lt. Parks’ mother clipped this ad featuring Bette from the Saturday Evening Post. Before she could send it to him, she received the news that her son was missing in action. The picture got put in the box of old letters.

Two days after arriving in Moses Lake, my father wrote his mother to bring her up to date on his cross country trip. There is no detailed record of what transpired between the young couple in Minneapolis’ Great Northern Depot but the two sentences he devotes to the meeting confirm the tenuous nature of what ever it was they had.

“Bette was at the train to meet me and we both enjoyed seeing each other. Got along well for some reason

May 17, 1943 – Letter from 2nd Lt. Parks to his mother.

And then there’s the postscript at the bottom of page two of the very same letter…

Send my pictures out. The big one of me to Gerry. Miss Gerry Bock, Leamington Hotel, Oakland, Calif.

May 17, 1943 – Letter from 2nd Lt. Parks to his mother.

Gerry Bock had been my father’s girl friend when he was in junior high in Burlington, Iowa. They hadn’t seen one another for six or seven years and, much to his mother’s surprise (and, I believe, chagrin) they had started corresponding somewhere around the time her son joined the Army Air Force.

This was the picture 2nd Lt. Parks had his mother send to Gerry. He did not ask his mother to send a picture to Bette but, I am willing to wager she sent one anyway… His mother adored Bette.

After high school, Gerry had left Burlington and gone to California to work as an telephone operator for the phone company. Those were the days when there were telephone operators and there was only one phone company.

Before 2nd Lt. Parks left for England and the war, Gerry would come to Walla Walla for a weekend visit with her former junior high sweetheart. As with the meeting in Minneapolis, there is no detailed record of what transpired over the course of that weekend in Walla Walla other than this single sentence he wrote his mother.

We had a swell time and it was great to see her again. She’s quite a young lady now.” – Letter to Mrs. Virginia Parks July 18, 1943

Beyond that line in that letter, Gerry is never mentioned again. However, as we shall see in future episodes, the thing with Bette persists.

Moses Lake, Washington

May

After the brief visit with Bette in Minneapolis, 2nd Lt. Parks boarded a Great Northern train heading west. He and thirty-nine fellow pilots from Lockburne arrived at Moses Lake on the 15th of May. According to his letter to his mother, their crews were waiting for them. Parks also mentions in his letter that there were only seven B-17s at the base… for thirty-nine crews. There was going to be a lot of sharing.

On the same day the pilots arrived at the base in Washington, in England, the 8th Air Force flew its 57th mission of the war sending 1900 airmen in 190 B-17s to bomb various targets in Germany. Six American bombers their sixty crewmen didn’t return.

The new pilots arriving at Moses Lake were badly needed in Europe. None of them knew it at the time but they would only be at Moses Lake for eighteen days.

2nd Lt. Parks’ Moses Lake Flight Record for May, 1943

2nd Lt. Parks’ flight record for May, 1943 shows that on the 15th of May, after reporting for duty at six in the morning, he spent four hours in a B-17, two as pilot and two as a passenger. The term, “passenger”, is a little misleading. It implies passivity. In a couple of months, they were going to war and anytime they were in the kind of aircraft that would carry them and their crews into combat, they were working hard to absorb as much knowledge as they could on the B-17’s operation, capabilities, and weaknesses.

As the certificate below shows, the two hours Lt. Parks spent flying on his first day in Moses Lake… after staying up all night changing trains… was his daytime qualifying check flight to determine whether or not he had what it took to be a B-17 command pilot. Apparently, he had what it took.

Two days later, on the 17th, he passed his qualifying nighttime and instrument check flights for the same command pilot certification. Twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lt. Parks was now, not just a pilot… he was, officially, a leader of men.

June 1st, 1943, 2nd Lt. Parks is certified as an “Airplane Commander and Pilot of same” by 2nd Lt. Richard H. Ingram

Twenty-six-year-old 2nd Lt. Ingram oversaw my father’s check rides. Ingram was born and raised in nearby Dayton, Washington and had gotten his civilian pilot’s license there in October of 1940. The next month, he enlisted in the Army. Three years later, Ingram was in Moses Lake, 12o miles from his hometown, training B-17 pilots. Richard passed away in 2011… in Dayton, Washington… the same town in which he was born.

In addition to supervising check rides, 2nd Lt. Ingram also administered the “Blindfold Test for B-17F“. For this test, the subject was seated in the pilot’s position, blindfolded, and then instructed to reach out and touch each of thirty-nine different cockpit instruments as they were called out by the examiner.

The B-17 Blindfold Test
B-17 Cockpit and Instrument Panel

On Wednesday the 2nd of June, after eighteen days at Moses Lake… the thirty-nine newly certified command pilots and their almost complete combat crews were transferred 116 miles south to the Army Air Base at Walla Walla, Washington.

I say that the combat crews were, “almost complete” because… from the look of the following order dated June 2, 1943, the Army was waiting for a shipment of navigators.

Each 10-man crew only lists nine members. The navigator position (“N”) is blank.
Crew 5-29 lists 2nd Lt. Thomas H. Hudson, Jr as the Parks crew’s co-pilot. “Tommy” would be assigned to another crew right before the Parks crew left Walla Walla. The underline and the “x” next to Hudson’s name probably mark the moment 2nd Lt. Parks found out there was going to be a change.
Crew 5-27: There were other crew changes going on at the time. I know that Silas Nettles’ co-pilot on this list, Marvin E. Hilton, would be replaced by 2nd Lt. Jerry LeFors who would also become a close friend of my father and one of the twelve officers who shared the same Quonset hut in England at the base out of which they all flew. Thirty-one-year-old Tech Sgt. Charles F. Putman also ended up with another crewa crew that got shot down later that year in November. Sgt. Putman ended up as a POW in the now famous, Stalag 17.

Walla Walla, Washington and the Martin Provisional Group

June

The above orders assigning the pilots and their crews to Walla Walla also assigned them to the “Martin Provisional Group“.

In the context of this order, the word “provisional” is used in the sense of, “to provision” or “to supply“. And to be exactly and dramatically precise, here the word was being used in the sense of “RE-provision” The members of the Martin Provisional Group were replacement crews… And they weren’t replacing airmen who had finished the war and were headed home… All 390 of them were headed for England to replace bomber crews that were either captured or missing or dead.

Three hot shots Walla Walla, Washington circa July 1943. (l to r) 2nd Lieutenants, Thomas A. Parks, Robert E. O’Hearn, and Silas S. Nettles. O’Hearn was Nettles’ navigator, all three shared the same 12-man Quonset hut in England, and all three would become prisoners of war... before the year was over.
Twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lt. Parks – Walla Walla, Washington – circa July 1943

2nd Lt. Parks arrived in Walla Walla, on Friday, June 4th. On the following Wednesday, he received his formation flight certification. This certification was critical because in combat he would be part of a formation consisting of hundreds of bombers. As the formation approached their target, pilots would be required to maintain a wingtip to wingtip distance of thirty feet between their bomber and the bombers closest to them in the formation.

June 9 – 26 2nd Lt. Parks’ Flight Record
July

Just before the Fourth of July, my father had a three-day pass and his former junior high school sweetheart, Miss Gerry Bock came up from Oakland, California for a visit. Keep in mind, they were both fourteen or fifteen the last time they saw one another.

Given how involved my grandmother was with her son’s love life and her unexplained concern about Miss Gerry in general… The two sentences her son devoted to the visit must have made his mother’s head explode.

We had a swell time and it was great to see her again. She is quite a young lady now.

2nd Lt. Parks / Letter to his mother / July 18, 1943

In July, 2nd Lt. Parks flew nineteen days. On those days, he averaged at little over 4.6 hours of flight time per day in the B-17. Almost every combat mission they would fly over the European continent would be longer than that… Some would require them to be in the air for more than ten hours.

The last week that the Martin Provisional Group was at Walla Walla, the pilots and their crews flew down to Hammer Army Air Field just outside of Fresno, California.

From Hammer Field, Monterey Bay and the Pacific were 100 miles due west and for six straight days the pilots and their crews flew an average of 4.8 hours a day to acquire some experience flying over water. They would all soon find out that flying over the Pacific off the coast of California in July is entirely different from flying combat missions over the English Channel and the North Sea as winter descends on Europe…. And winter was coming.

The Co-pilots

Just before shipping out, my father’s original co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Tommy Hudson was replaced by 2nd Lt. Earl Bason. You can read more about them in the post, Watching Hogan’s Heroes with my Dad.

The Hoarder

While going through the box of old letters that were the genesis of this blog, I came across the following newspaper article from May of 1943 that my grandmother had clipped and saved during the time her son was in Washington state preparing for combat… A familiar name had turned up in the news.

A $5000 fine in 1943 was the equivalent of an $80,000 fine today.

In the 1930s, my grandfather, Thomas A. Parks, Sr., worked for the Coca-Cola Company helping bottlers improve their sales operations. Between 1934 and 1940, his work took him and his family to Omaha, Nebraska, Burlington, Iowa, Rock Island, Illinois, and Jamestown, North Dakota.

In Jamestown, my grandfather worked for John R. Bernabucci, an Italian immigrant who had moved there from New Britain, Connecticut in 1927. By 1940, Bernabucci owned his own Coca-Cola bottling business and was living the American dream.

In the 1940 census, a Jamestown doctor listed his 1939 yearly income as $3000, a local stenographer, $800, a manager at a lumber yard, $1200, a deputy $1460, and a public school teacher $1030. One maid in a private home in Jamestown listed her income for working 52 weeks in 1939 as… $200. In 1940, Bernabucci listed his income for the previous year as $7200… Adjusted for inflation that’s $150,000.

circa October 1939. My grandfather, forty-one-year-old Thomas A. Parks, Sr. is on the far left. On the far right is forty-one-year-old Coca-Cola bottler, John Bernabucci .
This North Dakota hunting license, issued to my grandfather on September 30, 1939 was also in the box of old letters. To my knowledge, my grandfather was not a hunter. Beyond the single picture and the single hunting license, there is no evidence in our family history that he hunted. I suspect Bernabucci asked him to go hunting and my grandfather promptly bought a license, borrowed a ten gauge shotgun, and went off to slay copious quantities of birds with his boss. According to the back of the license, the 1939 season for pheasants, partridges, and grouse was from the 1st of October to the 15th. That year’s season for migratory water fowl was from the 1st of October 1 to November 14th. The hunting picture was taken sometime during that period.
The Crime

In January of 1943, John Bernabucci was arrested by United States Marshals and charged with hoarding sugar, an important war time commodity that also happened to be critical to Bernabucci’s Coca-Cola bottling business… And his profits. Specifically, the charges against Bernabucci were that, the previous year, he had declared that his bottling business had seven tons of sugar on hand when, in fact, it had more than twice that amount.

When Bernabucci was brought up on the hoarding charges, he promptly pleaded, “not guilty“. By May of that year, having either seen the error of his ways or, more likely, the extent of the government’s case against him, he changed his plea to, “guilty“. According to the article, Bernabucci’s lawyers’ current position was, “sure our client’s guilty but he didn’t mean to do it…”

I do not know why my grandmother saved this clipping. Her son probably met Bernabucci when the Parks family lived in Jamestown and his father worked at the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant there. But I think it was more than interest in someone the family knew.

I believe she clipped and saved the article because of the contrast between what this particular guy was doing during the war and what her only child was doing. My grandmother was very proud of her son’s decision to enlist. To help contribute to the war effort, she, herself, had taken a job as a Post Exchange clerk at a nearby Army base. In the face of the sacrifices being made both overseas and on the home front by Americans in general and her only child in particular, Bernabucci’s hoarding would have filled her with a terrible-to-behold, white-hot, unforgiving rage.

However, after the war, in spite of the charges and the guilty plea and the fine and the absence of forgiveness from my grandmother… The Bernabucci family continued to prosper. John’s son, Jack took over and expanded his father’s Coca-Cola Bottling operation, got into real estate, served in the North Dakota House of Representatives, and was a member of the Republican National Committee for his state.

It is here that my Bernabucci research took a slightly head-spinning turn. I discovered that, in his later years, Jack and his wife moved to nearby Palm Springs where he became a founding member of the Palm Springs Air Museum. The Air Museum is one of our favorite places to take visitors so they can see one of its most prized exhibits… An excellently restored Boeing B-17.

NEXT: Practicing the Art of War: Episode One: Shipping Out

Learning the Art of War: Episode 6: B-17 Transition Training

©2022 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved

Graduation

By February 1943, America had been in the war for 15 months. On Tuesday the 16th of February, my father graduated from Advanced Pilot Training and became 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr. That same day, the New York Daily News ran the following banner headline.

In 1943, the city is called “Kharkov”, it is in Russia, and it’s citizens are fighting German invaders. Seventy-nine years later and the city’s name has changed to “Kharkiv”, it is in Ukraine, and its citizens are fighting Russian invaders. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

In Columbus, Mississippi, after almost eight months of training without a break, my father and his classmates were eagerly anticipating a leave. So was his mother. After the ceremony, instead of returning home to Washington, D.C., she had gone to stay with her parents in nearby Atlanta just in case “Tommy“, her only child, got a few days off.

In England, on that Mississippi graduation day, the 8th Air Force flew its 36th combat mission of the war. Sixty-five American bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives on the German U-boat base at Saint-Nazaire, France. Eight of those bombers, each carrying a 10-man crew, didn’t return from the mission and the Air Force found itself needing eighty new airmen, including sixteen new 2nd lieutenants to replace the pilots and co-pilots they lost that day.

It would be another seven and a half months before Lt. Parks would fly his first combat mission. During that time the 8th Air Force would fly sixty-nine more missions. As more aircrews arrived in England, the number of bombers sent on each mission increased to the point that on my father’s first trip to Germany he was part of a force of 350 bombers carrying 3500 airmen. The Army Air Force would need a lot more replacements by the time my father was ready to go to war.

By the end of the war, raids of over 1000 bombers were not uncommon.

But in February of 1943, in Columbus, Mississippi, during the week of the 16th, all the newly minted 2nd Lieutenants had to do was sit around and speculate about what was coming next.

By the evening of Friday the 19th, 2nd Lt. Parks was confident enough they were going to get some time off that he sent the following telegram to his mother in Atlanta.

February 19th, 1943 – Telegram from 2nd Lt. Parks to his mother

The very next morning, February 20th, the Army ruined everyone’s weekend by posting Special Orders Number 46.

February 20, 1943 – OrdersWithout the military abbreviations, it reads: “The following named Officers are released from assignment and duty at this station and are assigned to station indicated and Will Proceed thereto without delay reporting on arrival to their respective Commanding Officer for duty”
February 20, 1943 – Orders

In August of 1942, a little over six months prior to the posting of the above orders, a group of 284 cadets left Basic Training in Montgomery, Alabama and headed for Arcadia, Florida to learn to fly. Thirteen of the thirty-two names on the above orders assigned to heavy bomber transition training at the Army Airfield in Smyrna, Tennessee were part of that group.

Against some pretty long odds, by the end of September 1943, four of those thirteen pilots; Thomas A. Parks, Jr., Edward F. McDowell, Henry E. Marks, Jr., and Gordon R. Hendricksen, would end up in the same bomb group flying combat missions out of the same small airbase in England.

2nd Lt. Gordon Rudolf Hendricksen circa February 1943

In late November 1943, in a letter from England written to his pal Russ Dougherty who was then stationed at Stuggart Army Airfield in Arkansas, my father brings Russ up to date on two of their mutual friends from their training days together.

Excerpt from Lt. Parks’ November 24th, 1943 letter to Lt. Russ Dougherty in Arkansas
Edward F. McDowell

On Valentine’s Day 1943, in Columbus, Mississippi, just before graduating from Advanced Flight Training and becoming a 2nd Lieutenant, Edward McDowell celebrated his 25th birthday. He went to Europe, flew with the 96th Bomb Group in the same Squadron as 2nd Lts. Parks, Marks, and Hendricksen, and survived the ordeal. He returned home, went to law school, became a practicing attorney, and married and raised a family.

He was the lucky one…

Henry E. Marks, Jr.

In his letter to Russ, Lt. Parks refers to Henry Marks, Jr. as, “Juney” Marks. A junior himself, when my father was growing up, his mother called him, “juney“. To say my father loathed that appellation is to understate his feelings on the matter by several orders of magnitude. So, I find it interesting that he used it in the above correspondence when referring to Henry. I like to imagine, sometime during their training, probably very early on, my father gleefully saddled his comrade with the hated nickname.

Carlstrom Field, Arcadia, Florida circa September 1942

Henry Marks grew up in the southwest corner of Virginia in rural Smyth County not far from that state’s border with North Carolina.

In September 1941, eighty days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Henry traveled 300 miles north to Richmond and on Friday the 19th, enlisted in the United States Army. It is just a guess but his enlistment may have had more to do with getting out of Smyth County than patriotic zeal.

Whatever his reasons for enlisting, by December 1941, America was at war. Henry signed up to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps, ended up in the same training class as my father, and picked up the nickname “juney“.

Seventeen months after beginning basic training, Lieutenants Marks and Parks found themselves at the 96th Bomb Group based in the tiny village of Snetterton Heath in England.

At the beginning of October 1943, the two young men began flying missions. By the end of that month, they and their crews were seasoned combat veterans.

November 13th, 1943 – Bremen

In Dad’s letter to his friend, Russ, he states that “Juney” Marks went down over Munster. The problem with that is… Munster is ninety miles southeast of Bremen. It became clear to me pretty quickly, that this story was going to require some research.

November 13th, 1943 was the 8th Air Force’s 130th mission of the war. The target that day was the German naval facility at the port of Bremen. The 8th planned to send 272 bombers from bases located all over England’s East Anglia region. Bombers from the 96th Bomb Group would join the effort.

Not every crew flew every mission and the Parks crew had that Saturday off. The Marks crew wasn’t so lucky.

The twenty or so bombers the 96th BG would contribute to the large air armada headed for Bremen that day. The bombers from the 96th took off around 7:30 in the morning, formed up with the rest of the force just off the English coast, and headed across the channel. Then, as so often happens in that part of the world in November… The weather went to hell.

A recall order was issued but only 129 bombers got the message. The Marks crew and the remaining 142 B-17s and B-24s dutifully lumbered on through the deteriorating weather to their designated target.

On the internet, the most common version of what happened next is that near Bremen, the Marks B-17 suffered a collision with another B-17 and crashed.

The document below is the Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) for Marks and the nine men under his command. Whenever a plane didn’t return, this document was filled out “within 48 hours of the time an aircraft is officially reported missing“. The MACR was meant to contain as much information about the plane, its crew and their collective fate as could be gathered from anyone who might have witnessed anything related to their disappearance.

The Henry Marks MACR
MACR #1388

The import lines are 4, 5, 11, and 13. The three Lieutenants listed at line 11 as witnesses were flying in nearby bombers and all indicate that at 11:37 am at longitude & latitude 53.30 N, 08.50 E, they saw the Marks B-17 being “Rammed by another B-17 in midair“.

Line 13 indicates that even though the witnesses believe the aircraft lost, they did not see the final outcome of the collision.

The longitude and latitude on the MACR put the collision over the German village of Schawnewede, about 10 miles northwest of Bremen and only a tenth of a degree from where the group would turn onto its bomb run.

Official reports indicate the first bombs were dropped on the target at 11:20 and the last at 11:45. At 11:37, when the collision took place, the Marks plane was at a time and position that would have put it among the last American bombers over Bremen that day.

Most online accounts say that after contact with the other bomber, the Marks’ plane immediately spun out of control and crashed, three of the crew survived, and the other B-17 managed to return to England. These accounts were written decades later and I believe are generally based on what is reported in the MACR.

The problem with this narrative is, the witnesses didn’t report a crash and German and Dutch records show the Marks plane crashing at 12:15 pm, thirty-eight minutes after the collision and 100 miles southwest of Schawnewede near the village of Ommen, in the Netherlands.

German records indicate that a German fighter pilot, Oberleutnant Wolfgang Neu, was credited with shooting down the Marks B-17 at 12:15 pm. Dutch records confirm the crash and identification of the same B-17, as well as the identification of seven fatalities and three survivors from the Marks crew around that same time.

My Best Guess

There’s no way of knowing for certain but from the information I found, here’s my take on what happened that day.

There were three witnesses to the collision near Bremen, so I believe that happened where and when they said it did. However, none of the witnesses reported seeing the bomber spin out of control. Because I do not believe thirty-eight minutes is enough time for the Marks bomber to complete their bomb run and then get down to Ommen, I believe the Marks B-17 was damaged in the collision, broke off its bomb run, and headed home along the mission’s planned return route to England.

8th Air Force maps for that day show the return from Bremen was to the southwest from Bremen over the Netherlands, a route that would have taken the Marks bomber close to the village of Ommen and, interestingly, only 60 miles due west of Munster. While still not “over Munster“, Ommen is significantly closer to that city than Bremen.

A little over thirty-eight minutes after the collision… At 25000 feet over Ommen… Twenty-four-year-old Henry Marks and his crew ran into Wolfgang Neu who was hunting American bombers returning from Bremen.

There are no reports detailing the interaction between the two enemy aircraft but Dutch reports say that the debris from the Marks B-17 was widely scattered indicating it broke up or blew up in midair.

The bodies of Marks and six of his crew were found among the debris of their fallen bomber.

Only three airmen made it out of the plane, the waist gunners, S/Sgts Francis Ferrick and Eugene Fennell and the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Wilbur Hyman Brown. Brown and Fennell were badly injured and spent more than a month in a German hospital before being sent to their respective POW camps. Even though Ferrick had an ankle injury, he was imprisoned immediately.

Bomber crews did not normally wear their parachutes during missions. They wore a harness to which they clipped the chute once given the order to prepare to bail out. I believe that after the bomber was damaged in the collision, as a precaution, Marks gave his crew the order to don their parachutes… I think, whether they bailed out or were blown out of the bomber, that precaution may be why Lt. Brown and the two sergeants survived the catastrophic destruction of their aircraft.

By the end of December, when Henry Marks’ co-pilot, Lt. Brown reached Stalag I, the POW camp where he would spend the rest of the war, Lt. Thomas Parks was already there, having been shot down on November 29th, sixteen days after his pal “Juney“… On another 8th Air Force mission to Bremen.

Gordon R. Hendricksen

Like Marks and McDowell, Gordon Hendricksen had been with my father from the very beginning of his military service. It is a puzzle as to why he is not mentioned in my father’s letter to Russ. After all that time together, they had to have been acquainted with one another. I can only infer, that they just ran in different circles.

In Columbus, Mississippi, on the 16th of February 1943, when 23-year-old Gordon Hendricksen became a 2nd Lieutenant, he was exactly one week away from what would turn out to be his last birthday.

Like my father, Gordon joined the Army Air Force in early 1942. They went through flight training together, went through crew training together, crossed the Atlantic together, were sent to the same airbase in England together, and, on November 29th, 1943, on the same mission to Bremen, they and their crews were both declared missing in action at exactly the same time… 14:40.

It is at this exact moment their fates radically diverge.

At 14:40, on November 29, 1943, my father and his crew bailed out of their stricken bomber, were captured, and became prisoners of war, and at the end of the conflict, were liberated and returned to the United States where they all resumed their lives.

At 14:40, on November 29, 1943, Lt. Gordon Hendricksen and his crew disappeared from the face of the earth… forever.

The Hendricksen MACR
MACR #1390 – Hendricksen

When I first looked at the document, I immediately noticed… The crew Lt. Hendricksen disappeared with was not the crew he trained, crossed the Atlantic, and arrived with at the 96th Bomb Group in England.

The Original Hendricksen Crew

I found them in a separate MACR from December 20th, 1943. It appears after 2nd Lt. Hendricksen disappeared over Bremen on November 13th, 1943, eight of the nine members of Hendricksen’s original crew were assigned to fly with pilot, 1st Lt. Stanley Budleski and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Bernard Jackson.

At the same time, Hendricksen’s original co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Lawrence Arsingstall, Jr. was promoted to pilot and assigned a crew of his own. By the end of the war, Arsingstall had been promoted to Captain and awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Robert returned to the States, married, raised a family, and died in 2007 in Oklahoma City.

The eight members of the Hendricksen crew assigned to fly with 1st Lt. Budleski weren’t so lucky. On the 20th of December, 1943, on their sixth mission together, they were shot down… on yet another mission to Bremen.

Four of the original members of the Hendricksen crew died on that mission, along with their new pilot and co-pilot. The remaining four members of the original Hendricksen crew survived as prisoners of war.

November 29, 1943 – Bremen

Why Gordon was flying with another crew on this mission, is lost to history. Because he was a 2nd Lieutenant and his co-pilot that day was a higher-ranked 1st Lieutenant, Stanley C. Wells, a possible explanation is, that the crew was that of Lt. Wells and for that mission, he had been assigned command duties involving the leading formation. Pilots given that kind of assignment would ask another pilot to fly in their seat so they could concentrate on the larger responsibility of guiding the group.

The only thing that is known for sure about what happened to the plane Hendricksen was piloting that day is, they left England for Bremen, Germany and they didn’t return. There were no witnesses. No wreckage was ever found. No bodies were ever found. The supposition is, for reasons unknown, they crashed in the North Sea or the English Channel. They were not the first airmen to disappear this way and they would not be the last.

After the war, on September 3rd, 1945, 2nd Lt. Gordon Hendricksen and the men he flew with that day were declared deceased and their names were added to the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery in England. The monument is inscribed with over 5000 names of Americans missing in action or lost or buried at sea during WWII.

In Remembrance:

2nd Lt. Gordon R. Hendricksen: (24) Pilot – From Heron, Minnesota, before the war, Gordon lived with his brother and his brother’s wife and worked on their farm.

Circa August 1942 – Carlstrom Field, Arcadia, Florida

1st Lt. Stanley Clark Wells: (24) Co-pilot – Stan was from Southern California. He and his wife, Evelyn, were married in California on November 28, 1942. Stanley died in Europe exactly one day after his and Evelyn’s 1st anniversary.

Newspapers.com – Long Beach Press-Telegram
Long Beach, California 21 Apr 1943

2nd Lt. Joseph Watson Taylor: (22) Navigator“Taylor” was from Verona, New Jersey. A graduate of an elite prep school, by the time he was 21, he had gotten a degree from Dartmouth.

Joseph Taylor’s 1937 yearbook (the Old Gold & Blue) photo from The Peddie School. In 2015, Peddie was ranked 13th on a list of Most Elite Boarding Schools In The US.Ancestry.com

2nd Lt. James “Jimmie” Valentine Rose: (28) Bombardier – The oldest member of the crew, Jim was from Los Angeles and lived there with his wife Miriam and their infant son… Jim Jr. In 1940, on his draft card, Jim, a former member of the Lake Erie Summer Theater and a graduate of the El Capitan School of Stage and Screen, listed his occupation as, “Freelance Actor“.

T/Sgt Edwin E. Bowersox: (22) Radio Operator – Ed grew up west of Allentown, Pennsylvania in rural Snyder County. He was single, worked on his parents’ farm, and was their only child. He died 12 days after his 22nd birthday.

T/Sgt William J. Vargo: (23) Top Turret Gunner – Another Pennsylvania native, Bill grew up south of Pittsburgh in the area around Uniontown and before joining the Army, worked as a laborer for the WPA. Bill was single and the 2nd oldest of seven children of Hungarian immigrants.

S/Sgt Lewis Earl Devoe: (24) Ball Turret Gunner – From Spokane, Washington, Lewis had attended Washington State University before the war. He was single and at 5’4″ and 123 lbs, was the perfect size for the cramped, claustrophobia-inducing confines of a B-17 ball turret.

Sophomore Lewis Devoe – Sigma Nu – Washington State University – 1940 Ancestry.com

S/Sgt Jack Cozette Clackley: (20) Right Waist Gunner – From Greenville, Alabama, this tall, blue-eyed, red-head worked at an Alabama cotton mill before enlisting. He was the youngest member of the bomber crew.

Cpl Ferdinand “Fred” A. Monier, Jr.: (21) Left Waist Gunner – From San Antonio, Texas, Fred worked at the Paul Wright Electric Company before enlisting.

S/Sgt Garnet John Wood: (26) Tail Gunner – From Batavia, New York, before the war, Garnet, a machinist, was employed by the Eastman Kodak Company. At the time of his disappearance, Garnet’s younger brother, John was also missing in action in Europe. His older brother was serving with the Army in Hawaii.

Garnet, the crews’ other red-headed gunner left behind a wife, Helen and a 4-year-old son, James.

Smyrna and B-17 Transition Training

In Columbus, Mississippi, on February 20th, 1943, when the 32 new pilots assigned to heavy bomber training in Smyrna, Tennessee got Special Orders Number 46… they were blissfully unaware of what was in store for them. All they knew was, that they had one day to get to Smyrna and report for duty.

The pace of their education was about to kick into high gear. By August, Lt. Parks would be on a ship in a convoy headed for England and the war. That meant, he only had five months to gain a complete understanding of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress… The most complex aircraft of its day. Pilots were expected not only to learn to fly the plane but to acquire a thorough working knowledge of all the bomber’s avionic, hydraulic, fuel, communications, weapons, and life support systems.

For my father, there was a growing realization that his understanding of all the component parts of the B-17 could mean the difference between life and death for him and the nine men under his command.

It was a heavy responsibility.

That is probably why, from this point forward, there are almost no personal photographs. It is also why his mother would spend the rest of the time he was flying B-17s complaining that he was not writing her enough letters.

2nd Lt. Parks arrived at Smyrna Airfield on Saturday, February 21, 1943. It had been almost exactly six months since his first solo flight back in Arcadia, Florida and he had a little over 201 hours of flight time in various single and twin-engine aircraft to his credit. In the next five months, he would put in an additional 275 hours flying big, four-engine B-17s.

24 days after arriving, Lt. Parks writes his first letter home from Smyrna, Tennessee. For more on why my father was,…shocked to hear about Fred“, read, 4. Learning the Art of War – Advanced Flight.

2nd Lt. Parks begins his first letter in a month to his mother with an immediate apology, followed by an explanation for his tardiness. “We’re on the flight line six hours a day and ground school three“.

On days he wasn’t flying a B-17, or in ground school, he spent time in a Link Trainer.

Originally created in 1929 to teach pilots how to fly at night using only the instruments in their cockpit as a spatial reference, Link Trainers were the state-of-the-art when it came to flight simulators during WWII.

The trainer responded to pilot input on flight controls and rotated through three axes. It simulated all flight instruments as well as conditions such as pre-stall buffet and spins. With its removable opaque canopy, it was very useful for instrument and navigation training.

In those days, there were no computers as we know them. The Link Trainer was an analog device that had more in common with the mechanical bull made popular by John Travolta and Debra Winger in the movie, Urban Cowboy.

As noted in his monthly Flight Record (see below), while he was at Smyrna, 2nd Lt. Parks spent eight hours in a Link Trainer.

Instructor communicating with trainee in the Link Trainer
Flying Over Atlanta

In the March 16th letter to his mother that contains his apology for the long delay in writing her, he tells Virginia that he was, “over Atlanta last night“. 2nd Lt. Parks doesn’t mention that he was in the air for five hours that evening and that in that time period he had been over Atlanta twice.

On the evening of March 15th, to practice cross-country nighttime navigation, he flew a B-17 on a non-stop two-and-a-half-hour flight from Smyrna, Tennessee to Birmingham, Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia, and back to Smyrna… The first time as pilot, the second time as co-pilot.

2nd Lt. Parks’ Flight Record for the month of March 1943. It shows the five-hour flight over Atlanta on the 15th. It also shows his transfer date to Lockbourne Army Airbase in Ohio as March 29th, 1943.
This page indicates that the five hours of flying my father did on the 15th were at night.
GROUNDED in Atlanta

My father remembered a training flight from his time at Smyrna where, because of bad weather ahead of them, he, as pilot, made the command decision to set down at an airfield in Atlanta and spend the night with his grandparents. From looking at his flight record for March, I believe that happened on March 19th.

The Smyrna – Cochran (Georgia) – Smyrna round-trip on that day took them right over Atlanta and the flight record shows they flew from Atlanta to Smyrna on the 20th with no indication of how they got to Atlanta.

From Newspapers.com, I was able to confirm there were severe afternoon and evening thunderstorms on the 19th in the Nashville/Smyrna area. After landing at an airfield in Atlanta, my father called his grandparents who came and picked up the “boys” and took them home for the evening.

In the following letter, 2nd Lt. Parks’ grandmother, Jennie Walton refers to the event. It is a little over a month later and she is still greatly troubled that she was not better prepared for her grandson’s surprise visit.

April 28th, 1943 – Letter from 2nd Lt. Parks’ grandmother, Jennie Walton in Atlanta.
NEW GEAR
March 28th, 1943 – Just before leaving Smyrna, 2nd Lt. Parks was issued leather fleece-lined flight gear that indicated they were about to begin flying at higher altitudes than they had to date.

The B-2 Flight Cap, B-3 Flying Trousers, and A-3 Flying Jacket pictured above are examples of the gear that 2nd Lt. Parks and his fellow pilots were issued at the end of March 1943 just before moving to Lockbourne Army Airbase in Ohio.

Lockbourne Army Air Base – Columbus, Ohio

On Monday, March 29th, the pilots were transferred from Smyrna, Tennessee to Lockbourne Army Airbase for more of the same… Day and night flying, takeoffs and landings, Link Trainer sessions, and ground school.

In addition to flight time, the Army Air Force also tracked how many landings a trainee made in each flying session.

Before arriving at Lockbourne, the most landings my father had made in one session were ten and he had done that by making a landing every 15 minutes over the course of two and a half hours.

The following flight record for 2nd Lt. Parks’ time at Lockbourne indicates that during his first flight session on his first day of flying at Lockbourne, he made fourteen landings in thirty-five minutes… first as pilot and then as co-pilot… that’s a take-off and landing every 2.5 minutes for 35 minutes… twice.

I assume these were what is called “touch-and-go” landings… Upon landing, as soon as the B-17’s wheels touched the runway, the pilot would apply full power and take off again. The co-pilot would re-set the flaps for flight and raise the landing gear as the pilot gained altitude and turned on a downwind leg to get in position to land again. Once they reached an altitude of 500 or 1000 feet, the pilot would turn on a short base leg and then quickly turn for an approach. As the pilot lined up on the runway, the co-pilot would adjust flaps for landing and lower the gear. Once the bomber’s wheels touched the runway… Full power… And the process started all over again. It would have been a very busy and stressful thirty-five minutes for the young pilots… And, to add to the pressure, it looks like they were being observed by Capt. Catton.

Welcome to Lockbourne.

2nd Lt. Parks Flight Record for April 1943 while at Lockbourne Army Air Base in Columbus, Ohio.
Paperwork

Leaving Lockbourne Army Air Base at the end of April generated a blizzard of paperwork. What follows is a sample.

April 30th, 1943. Lockbourne Army Airbase. Twenty-five-year-old Capt. Thomas A. Fydell gives twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Parks his final B-17 certification flight.
April 29th, 1943 – This document provides a possible explanation for why Gordon Hendricksen wasn’t mentioned in my father’s letter to his pal, Russ Dougherty about the fates of their mutual friends. Everything in the Army Air Force was done in alphabetical order and “Hendricksen” and” Parks” were simply in a different part of the alphabet. Dad’s close friends were Love, Marks, McDowell, Mouat, Nettles, Obenschain, O’Dell, and Scarborough… All of those names are within three letters of “Parks”. “Hendricksen” was seven letters away. Alphabetically speaking… that is an entirely different neighborhood.
April 30, 1943. Final Clearance… In all, 20 different people had to sign this piece of paper confirming that 2nd Lt. Parks wasn’t leaving Lockbourne AAB owing the United State Government any money. Oddly, the Lieutenant was allowed to use his own signature for six of the organizations… including the Ordnance Department
April 30, 1943 – In those days, almost everyone traveled long distance by train. 2nd Lt. Parks would take a train home to Washington D.C., spend a week with his parents, and then head back across the country for the 3-5 day trip to Moses Lake, Washington. As I read this, his government travel allowance would have been “approximately $104.25”
May 1st, 1943 – Special Orders 121 – Along with pilots from my father’s early training days already mentioned, new names become part of his story. 2nd Lieutenants O’Dell, Nettles, Scarborough, and Obenschain who did their early training at different bases than my father, will also end up in England at the 96th Bomb Group. There, Nettles and Scarborough and the 3 other officers from each of their crews will share the same 12-man Quonset hut with 2nd Lt. Parks and the officers from his crew. They would become very close friends.

LAST VISIT HOME

On May 1st, 1943, 2nd Lt. Parks and his fellow pilots finally got the leave they had been anticipating since February… a total of 14 days. During that time my father would travel to Washington D.C., visit his parents, and then travel back across the country to Moses Lake, Washington… By train. He had to report for duty on May 15th… no later than nine o’clock in the morning.

For some, this leave would be the last time they would ever see their families.

Sunday, May 10, 1943. Lt. Parks and his mother, Virginia standing in front of the Bartholdi Fountain at the National Botanic Gardens in Washington D.C.
May 10, 1943. Thomas A. Parks Jr. and Sr. at the National Botanic Gardens.
The first week of May 1943 – This portrait was taken at the Palais Royal Photography Studio in Washington D.C. sometime during 2nd Lt. Parks’ visit with his parents. His mother wrote on the back… Last leave home before going overseas – May 1943″

NEXT: Learning the Art of War: Episode 7: Crew Training, Girls, and the Hoarder

Learning the Art of War: Episode 5: They Wanted Wings

©2022 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved

At the beginning of February 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad was coming to its cataclysmic conclusion. After a little over five months of fighting in and around the great city, over two million people were dead, wounded, or missing. In the end, ninety-one thousand German soldiers surrendered to the Russians. Only five thousand survived their captivity.

The Third Reich had been on a four-and-a-half-year winning streak. They had not suffered a serious defeat since invading Poland on the first of September, 1939. The Russians’ successful defense of Stalingrad was big news.

On the 1st of February, the Independent Record in Helena, Montana ran a seven-column headline: “Germans at Stalingrad Wiped Out”. In Lumberton, North Carolina, The Robeson used eight columns to announce: “Death Blows Hitting Trapped Nazis”. My personal favorite came from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The boldface, all cap, banner headline in the Telegraph is an almost perfect horror movie elevator pitch:

I say the headline is an “almost” perfect pitch, only because, there is no way movie zombies could match the true horror of what actually happened at Stalingrad.

Columbus, Mississippi

As the surviving Germans surrendered on the Volga, aviation Cadet Thomas A. Parks, was at the Army Flying School in Columbus, Mississippi finishing his twin-engine flight training.

He had enlisted the previous March in Washington, DC. On April 10th, 1942, he had boarded a train bound for Montgomery, Alabama. Over the next three months, he had learned how to march and who to salute and what a five-mile run in Alabama in the middle of summer felt like.

In August of 1942, my father and the rest of the cadets that made up the class of 43B went to Arcadia, Florida to learn how to fly single-engine bi-planes. Two months later, they moved to Bainbridge, Georgia to learn to fly a bigger single-engine aircraft. Two months after that, they were in Columbus learning to fly still bigger airplanes.

The Advanced Trainers cadets flew at Columbus – Columbus Graduation Booklet

Now, after ten months in the Army Air Corps, Cadet Parks was about to officially become a pilot and be promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Enlisted men and non-commissioned officers would now be required to throw him a salute. He was looking forward to that.

His buddy, Russ Dougherty, was still in Bainbridge, Georgia finishing his primary flight training. He had been held back because, right before Christmas, Russ had had to take family leave when his father suddenly died.

Reunited

At the end of January 1943, Russ wrote to my father from Bainbridge:

January 20th, 1943 – Early texting – Russ Dougherty informs my father that he, Kelly Ritter, and Charlie King would be arriving from Bainbridge, Georgia the following Wednesday. Note that military personnel did not need postage on their letters  – Russ Dougherty Letter to Thomas A. Parks

In his two-line message, Russ mentions that Kelly Ritter and Charlie King would be coming with him. Only one of those three cadets would see combat.

Russ Dougherty became a flight instructor and Charlie King was assigned to a Ferrying Group that flew new warplanes out of Nashville to points of embarkation in the United States.

Kelly Ritter

Lt. Ritter, from North Carolina, wound up flying B-24 Liberators with the 93rd Bomb Group out of Hardwick, England.

On February 4th, 1944, the Ritter crew was headed for Frankfurt, Germany. This required the Americans to fly through the Ruhr Valley. Heavily industrialized, the Ruhr was one of the most closely defended regions of the Nazi homeland. An hour before the target, German anti-aircraft fire took out the #4 engine on Ritter’s B-24.

With his bomber losing altitude and too badly damaged to limp home, Ritter’s asked his navigator, 1st Lt. Edwin “Ed” Whitefield, to give him a heading for neutral Switzerland.

Like his pilot, Whitefield was also from North Carolina. He grew up in Durham and had dreamed of flying since high school.  High over Germany, Ed quickly plotted a course southward toward Switzerland and safety, a little over two hundred miles away. The stricken bomber covered less than fifty.

Their plane was on fire when Lt. Kelly order his men to bail out. All ten members of the Ritter crew parachuted safely from the bomber. Nine were taken prisoner by German forces. Upon landing, twenty-five-year-old Ed Whitefield, was surrounded and beaten to death by enraged civilians.

1936 – Durham High School – Edwin Whitefield’s senior yearbook picture. Even then, Ed was thinking about flying. It is likely his need for glasses prevented him from becoming a pilot but that didn’t stop him from becoming an airman – DHS Yearbook/Ancestry.com

Three weeks later, toward the end of February, Whitefield’s wife, Vera, got a telegram from the Secretary of War expressing his regret to inform her that Ed was missing in action. It would be more than a year before Vera would receive the news that her husband was dead.

The surviving members of the Ritter crew were taken to the interrogation camp at Oberursel, a suburb of Frankfurt, the city they had intended to bomb. A few weeks later, Lt. Kelly Ritter was moved to Stalag Luft I, where he reunited with my father. It had been a little over a year since they got together with Russ Dougherty and Charlie King to celebrate my father’s graduation from flying school.

On the 26th of January, 1943, the day Dougherty, Ritter, and King arrived in Columbus, Cadet Parks wrote his mother about his impending graduation:

Dear Folks ~

Three weeks from today! Doesn’t seem possible. Russ got here today and I was really glad to see him. Haven’t had a chance to talk to him much yet though.

Started our navigation flights this week. Went to Memphis Sunday afternoon, Meridian (Mississippi) yesterday. Probably go up to Nashville sometime this week. Night flying starts next week.Letter to his Parents – January 26th, 1943

January 26, 1943 – Letter from Cadet Parks to his parents.

Orders

The following document contains the names of all 225 young men who graduated with my father on February 16, 1943.

February 8th, 1943 – Orders stating that effective February 16th, 1943, Thomas Alvin Parks and the 225 cadets of class 43-B would be Army pilots and 2nd Lieutenants.

Report Card

Apparently, Identifying Naval Vessels was a problem for dad.

Graduation – February 16th of February, 1943

The week before his mother arrived to see the ceremony, my father wrote:

“…I had to get you a room in a private home in town. The hotel was sold out a week after we got here and I didn’t know in time whether you would be here. However I’m sure you will like the arrangements I did make. Almost 300 homes in town give their names to the USO who arranges accommodations during graduation week since the hotels are so inadequate.” – Letter to his mother – February 8th, 1943

War rationing had made heating oil hard to come by that winter and on graduation day, the East Coast was in the grip of a cold wave that had swept out of New England the day before killing twenty-six people and damaging crops as far south as the Everglades. On graduation day, temperatures in Mississippi barely reached the 40s.

The ceremony was held in the main hangar at the airbase. The structure would have offered some protection from the wind but it was cold.

Columbus was full of families who had traveled long distances to witness their sons, brothers, fiancees, and husbands become 2nd Lieutenants and United States Army Corps pilots.

February 12, 1943 – Cadet Leslie Meikleham’s family and his fiancee announce their intention of traveling from New Jersey to Columbus, Mississippi for the graduation ceremony – Time Record
Cadet Rockwell Keeney one-upped Cadet Meikleham by marrying his fiancee right after the graduation ceremony – Hartford Courant

At 10:30 in the morning the post chaplain, J.B. Wilford, gave the invocation.

February 16th, 1943 – Graduation program – Columbus Army Flight School

The graduation program lists Mr. Birney Imes as the commencement speaker. Birney, it turns out, was a big part of the reason cadets were training in Columbus.

Imes owned the local newspaper, The Commercial Dispatch, and, in 1940, he was the chairman of the Columbus Airbase Commission. A full year before Pearl Harbor, this group of local businessmen saw the writing on the wall and convinced the Army to build an airbase in their town. It’s Economics 101, War may be hell but it is also very good for business.

And business was good. The airbase opened on January 25th, 1942. It had been graduating a class a month ever since. This would be the base’s eleventh commencement ceremony and the 225 surviving cadets of 43B comprised one of the largest classes to graduate to date.

The picture of 2nd Lieutenant Parks at the opening of this post was taken a local photography studio in Columbus to celebrate his graduation.  Every member of his class got their picture taken.  A couple of hundred pictures every month would have been big business in 1943. The young cadets also needed Cokes and socks and movies and burgers and cigarettes and beer and… everything.

Birney Imes spoke at the base’s second commencement and, now, he had been asked to speak again. To that point, he was the only person who had been accorded that honor twice. We don’t know exactly what Mr. Imes told the cadets that day but it was probably along the lines of what another class later that year would hear from its commencement speaker when he told them that, “…there is great satisfaction in the knowledge of being privileged to fight for the upholding of a free people and a free world.

The Old Magnolia State

In January of 1943, while my father was in Columbus preparing to fight for “free people” and a “free world”, Federal Government prosecutors were 180 miles away in Hattiesburg, indicting five white Mississippians for depriving Howard Wash, a black Mississippian, of his civil rights

In October of the previous year, a jury had found Mr. Wash, the 49-year-old father of eight, guilty for the killing of Clint Welborn, Wash’s employer of eight years.

During the trial, testimony indicated that Mr. Welborn, a “dairyman“, was put out when his employee, Mr. Wash, arrived “late for his chores“. While “reprimanding” Wash (apparently with a shovel), Howard picked up a milk bucket and killed his boss.

Wash claimed self-defense. The all-white jury sentenced him to life in prison for unpremeditated murder.

The local community was outraged at the leniency of a life sentence and so, on the night of October 17, 1942, a mob of between 50 to 100 people dragged Mr. Wash from his jail cell, took him to a nearby railroad bridge, and lynched him

Now, as my father prepared for graduation, the Federal Government was bringing five men to trial on charges of inciting a lynch mob.

It was big news around the country. In the 42 years since the turn of the previous century, there had been 572 lynchings in Mississippi alone. The same week Howard Wash was killed, white Mississippians lynched, Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, both black and both fourteen.

The Hattiesburg trial in early 1943 was only the second time since 1903 the U.S. Government had attempted to prosecute the perpetrators of a lynching using the due process and equal protection under the law guarantees contained in the United States Constitution.

According to the St. Louis Star-Times, it was the prevailing opinion in Hattiesburg, before the Federal trial began that, “…you’ll never convict a white man in Mississippi of lynching a Negro“. It took fifteen minutes for twelve white jurors to confirm that opinion.

According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch of April 24th, 1943, during his final summation, defense Attorney Andy Scott stated, “These gentlemen (the Federal Prosecutors) seem to have forgotten that the south will remain where it is so far as white supremacy is concerned until Gabriel blows his horn. The Anglo-Saxon bloodstream must remain pure.

In the same article, defense attorney, Ed Franklin, from Jackson, Mississippi, is described as giving an improvised address that at times could be heard a block from the courthouse.

Franklin thundered to the jury that, “Social equality” was the guts of the case and that it constituted one of the guiding principals of the Communist Party in this country.

“Negroes and whites“, Franklin roared in closing, “understand one another in Mississippi and social and political equality is out of the question in the Old Magnolia State“.

Upholding a Free People

During World War II, black Americans, while only 9% of the U.S. population, contributed over 16% of all volunteers for military service.

In January of 1944, one month after my father became a prisoner of war, William E. Griffin, a black fighter pilot and one of the famous Tuskeegee Airmen, joined the ranks of Allied servicemen being held at Stalag I.

But, in February of 1943, that particular unpleasantness was still somewhere off in my father’s dim and distant future. Right now, he was an Army Air Force pilot and a brand new 2nd Lieutenant. “Yipee” indeed.

Thomas A. Parks, Jr. (Middle Row – 4th from the right) – Columbus Graduation Booklet

“Off we go, into the wild blue yonder… Flying high, into the sun…”

NEXT: Learning the Art of War: Episode 6: Transition Training

Baseball, Dice, and Dames… A Murder in Chicago

©2018 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


It was a pretty straightforward bit of research.

I was writing about my father’s experiences during World War II and simply wanted to know what the weather was like on the day he arrived at Carlstrom Field in Arcadia, Florida to begin his primary flight training.

My memory of the years I spent at the University of Florida led me to believe I already knew the answer.

It was August in Florida so, there was a pretty high probability what my father encountered in 1942 was temperatures in the low to mid-nineties with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms.

That’s what August in Florida was like in the 1970s when I was in college. That’s what August in Florida was like in 2017, the last time I visited my brother and his wife just south of Ocala. That’s what August in Florida has been like for at least the last ten thousand years.

However, as sure as I was about the weather, I didn’t want to just guess.

Using the online resources I have come to depend upon for this sort of stuff, it should have only taken a couple of minutes to find what I needed.

It would be a month before I got back to my father’s story.

I logged into Newspapers.com and searched for the word, “weather”, in all available Florida papers for August 7, 1942. I got hits for periodicals all over the Sunshine State. The closest one to Carlstrom Field was The Tampa Times.

From experience, I knew most dailies in those days had a local weather summary on page one in the upper left-hand corner.  The Times was no exception.

As predicted, the forecast for that day in question was temperatures low 90s with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Bingo.

I had what I came for. I should have just closed the browser and moved on.  However, my eyes were drawn to the enormous banner headline just below the weather that announced Russian tanks had stopped the German advance on Stalingrad.

Looking back, we now know that headline heralded the beginning of what was going to be a very bad winter on the eastern front for forces of the Third Reich and, more importantly, the end of Herr Hitler’s territorial expansion. From 1942 onward, Germany would, for the most part, be on the defensive and in retreat.

Already knowing how World War II ends, I skipped the Stalingrad story and quickly scanned the rest of the page. There were headlines on Gandhi, the Tampa sanitation department, a fatal car accident, the trial of an American traitor, and a meeting of United Nations’ envoys in Moscow but nothing really grabbed my attention.

Until I saw this…

I’m a sucker for the lurid, dime store detective, supermarket tabloid style of writing that was, in those days, the stock-in-trade of almost every newspaper in the country.

The story wasn’t at all what I was looking for but, now that I had seen it, I was hooked. I had to know more about the blonde and the ballplayer.

Mr. McNaughton

Gordon McNaughton circa 1932

Gordon McNaughton, the deceased, had, indeed, pitched for the Boston Red Sox.

In August of 1932, exactly ten years before making headlines in The Tampa Times for getting himself killed, Gordon McNaughton pitched six games for the Boys from Beantown.

The 22-year-old’s major league career lasted all of 35 days.

It turns out, 35 days was just long enough for him to achieve a kind of immortality by making a small contribution to Boston’s all-time worst won/loss record. In 1932 the Boston Red Sox went 43/111, a record that still stands today.

Ten years later, in August of 1942, Gordon, a native Chicagoan, was once again living in his hometown, working for the post office during the day, and running dice games in local taverns at night.

Divorced, McNaughton and his eight-year-old daughter, Patricia, were living with his parents at 3505 Sheffield Avenue, a block south of Wrigley Field.

Mrs. Moos

The previous month, Mrs. Dorothy Moos, a 27-year-old, brown-eyed blonde from Minnesota with a 10th-grade education left her 34-year-old husband, Fred, a grain speculator who also “owned a racehorse or two“.

Dorothy had already divorced Fred once before but it didn’t work out and they had remarried.

Until this most recent separation, Dorothy and Mr. Moos had been living at 3812 Kenmore Avenue, a block west of Sheridan Road and, coincidentally, three blocks north of the McNaughton residence.

Mrs. Dorothy Moos in August of 1942

In the newspapers, Dorothy, a salesgirl in a candy shop, revealed the circumstances that led her to abandon her husband for a second time.

I walked into my home and found him and another man with two girls. One of the girls had on his pajamas. I walked out and haven’t been back since.”

I am sure Fred had a perfectly good explanation for the gathering and why that girl was wearing his pajamas but Dorothy didn’t stick around to hear it. She fled a mile straight north up Sheridan Road and took up residence at the New Lawrence Hotel.

A day or two after moving into the New Lawrence, Dorothy met Gordon McNaughton at the Arlington Race Track.

She and Gordon hit it off immediately. It appears Mrs. Moos was not the kind of woman who spent a lot of time agonizing over a relationship gone bad.

She told reporters that during their three weeks together the 6’1”, ex-big league pitcher was “kind” and he took her out several times with his little girl.

Dorothy grew up in a broken home and, given her recent troubles with Fred, it was no wonder she gushed in newspapers all over the country, “It was like I always dreamed it could be”!

Dorothy felt she had met Mr. Right and that after suffering through a couple of days of living on her own, her life was finally on the mend.

The biggest and most immediate obstacle to a happily-ever-after ending to this fairy-tale romance was Gordon’s other girlfriend, Mrs. Eleanor “Honey” Williams.

It seems Gordon had a weakness for other men’s wives… And they for him.

Mrs. Williams

Mrs. Eleanor “Honey” Williams The “Dice Girl” in August of 1942

Three years earlier, Eleanor, an ex-dancer and sometimes waitress from Ontario, Canada, who the newspapers described as a 25-year-old “dice girl”, had left her husband, Clarence, and their daughter for a relationship with McNaughton.

The term, “Dice Girl“, was unknown to me and the closest the newspapers of the day came to providing an explanation was the answer a lieutenant at the Summerdale Police Station gave to a reporter who asked about it.

Dice girl? You know, 26 shakes of the box to make so many numbers.”

The reporter accepted this perfunctory description and dutifully recorded the lieutenant’s response. I, on the other hand, needed a more complete understanding of what Gordon and Eleanor were doing with their evenings in bars around The Windy City.

A little research turned up a dice game called, “Twenty-six”, which was popular in taverns in the mid-west from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Dice Girls were attractive young women skilled in the art of talking men into wagering their hard-earned money on a game specifically designed to relieve them of that money. During the game, the dice girl encouraged the player, kept track of the action, and once the inevitable happened, assured the poor sap he was sure to win the next time.

According to all reports, Eleanor was a very skilled dice girl.

In the game Twenty-six, a player would pick a number between 1 and 6 and then throw 10 dice 13 times. The player would win if their chosen number came up 26 or more times, exactly 13 times, or less than 10 times. As with all good house games, winning sounds invitingly easy. In fact, the tavern had an 18% edge.

For comparison, Las Vegas was built and thrives on a house edge of .5% for Blackjack,  .8% for Craps, and 5.5% for Roulette. The only casino game with a better house edge than the dice game Gordon and Eleanor were running is Keno. The house edge for Keno is 25%.

Seriously, stay away from Keno.

That’s What Love Is

When Dorothy met Gordon at the racetrack, he and Eleanor had been seeing one another for three years. Honey considered the relationship current and somewhat exclusive.

The young dice girl explained her love for the postal clerk this way,

She (Dorothy Moos) thinks she had a great romance! Three weeks is all she knew him and I’ve been like a wife to him for three years. Why, he even used to beat me when I went out with other fellows!”.

Let’s just pause for a moment and let that Valentine card sink in.

The Inciting Event

On Wednesday evening, August 5th, 1942, while working at the Fireside Inn, a tavern in Lincolnwood, Eleanor hooked up with one of those “other fellows”, a 34-year-old police officer, Bernard “Barney” Towey.

Later that evening, Eleanor and Barney left the Fireside to get a room at the Aragon Arms at 4917 North Kenmore Avenue. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the Aragon was a city block south of the New Lawrence Hotel. According to the newspapers, on the way to the hotel with Barney, Eleanor spotted Gordon’s car parked in front of the New Lawrence.

For Eleanor, a line had been crossed.

The Climax

In Chicago, the early morning of Thursday, August 6, 1942 was an unseasonably cool, 61 degrees.

Around 7 am, as Barney slept, Eleanor stole the officer’s gun, slipped out of their room, and made the 5-minute walk to the New Lawrence Hotel.

Being intimately familiar with Gordon’s morning routine, Eleanor showed the desk clerk a phone number and asked if anyone in the hotel had called it. She knew from personal experience that it was Gordon’s habit to call in sick to the Post Office whenever he was having an especially good time.

Finding out the Post Office had indeed been called; Eleanor rang the room and announced she was coming up.

The elevator operator let the angry woman off on the twelfth floor. Eleanor stormed down the hall to room 1244, pounded on the door, and, brandishing Barney’s revolver, brushed past Dorothy when she opened it.

Eleanor and Gordon then engaged in a protracted 45-minute verbal confrontation that ended abruptly when Gordon snapped, “Go ahead and shoot, I’m tired of arguing...”

I like to think heaven has some sort of contest for most regretted last words.

Postscripts

A couple of months after the murder, the Chicago Police Department fired Barney Towey for allowing Eleanor to steal his gun. The discharged police officer, who was the only unmarried actor in this adulterous drama, shot himself to death the following day.

Eleanor’s ex-husband, Clarence, went to the jail where his wife was being held for murdering her lover and asked her to remarry him.

She said, “Yes”.

Clarence Williams comforts his wife during the corner’s inquest.

Eleanor was found guilty of manslaughter, received a sentence of 1 to 14 years, and was sent 90 miles southwest of Chicago to the women’s reformatory at Dwight, Illinois.

After that, except for a single story in November of 1943 about the state’s attorney filing papers opposing Eleanor’s application for parole, the killer blonde disappears from the news.

A search for her husband, Clarence Williams, is complicated by thousands of hits for the Mod Squad actor, Clarence Williams III but, as far as I can tell, neither Clarence nor Eleanor make the papers ever again.

As for Dorothy and Fred Moos, it looks like Fred forgave Dorothy for her dalliance with the ballplayer and she forgave him for the party with the strange girl in his pajamas.

In 1946, three years after the murder, there is a record of a Fred and Dorothy Moos of Chicago, Illinois, sailing from Haiti to New Orleans aboard the S.S. Atlantida, a banana freighter operated by the Standard Fruit Company.

Now the Dole Food Company, in those days Standard Fruit was famous for bananas and interfering with Central American governments. The Standard Fruit Company, along with the United Fruit Company, helped introduced the term, “banana republic”, into our lexicon.

In addition to banana bunches, the Atlatida also carried 70 or so “first-class passengers”. On the ship’s passenger manifest, Fred listed their address as 7100 North Sheridan Road, Chicago. Located at the corner of Sheridan and West Estes Avenue, directly across the street from Loyola Park, it was less than four miles north of the scene of the crime.

In 1975, a retiring Chicago police officer recalled working on the McNaughton murder and described Dorothy Moos as a “prominent socialite”. If she indeed achieved some kind of social status, it was well after the murder and the banana boat vacation to Haiti and went completely unnoticed by Chicago newspapers. It is worth noting, the same retiring police officer also misidentified the victim in that long-ago murder as having once pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates. So… there’s that.

Remarkably, both the New Lawrence Hotel and the Aragon Arms are still in business. The New Lawrence fell into disrepair, was overhauled in 2014, and, today, is an upscale apartment complex called the Lawrence House. The Aragon also fell into disrepair but, sadly, remained exactly where it fell.

A 2017 Yelp review of the Aragon is pretty revealing:

This is not a hotel it is a dump. I would not have stayed as long as I have if I could afford to move. The manager is a mean old bitch who hates complaints and always threatening to throw people out who make her mad. The new female desk clerk they just hired is an evil piece of shit who will smile in your face while stabbing you in the back.” – 1/9/2017 – Frank J. – Chicago, Illinois

I gave Frank’s Yelp review of the Aragon Arms five stars.

In Closing…

My favorite summation of this saga is from the New York Daily News for December 12, 1942,

And that’s the story of how Cinderella found her Prince Charming and shot him through the heart.

They don’t write newspaper stories like that anymore.

Sam’s Father: A Co-pilot’s Story

©2017 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


I’ve known Sam McMurray for twenty years. I’ve been a fan a lot longer than that.

From Kojak and The Jeffersons in the ’70s to Moonlighting and Raising Arizona in the ’80s…  From The Simpsons, The Tracy Ullman Show, Pinky and the Brain, and Johnny Bravo in the 90’s to Friends and Breaking Bad in the 2000’s to Grey’s Anatomy and Devious Maids in this decade… Sam has done a lot of great acting. Check him out on IMDB.

These days, he and I are part of a ragtag group of actors, writers, producers, directors, and miscellaneous other members of Hollywood’s unsteadily employed who regularly get together to play golf and complain about the things men our age complain about. Which is pretty much everything.

Continue reading “Sam’s Father: A Co-pilot’s Story”

Learning the Art of War: Episode 4: Advanced Flight

©2016 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


1943

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.

https://aboxofoldletters.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/dad-i-clip-040-i-liked-columbus-avi.mp4
July 2004 – My father reflects on Columbus

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.

December 28, 1942 – Aviation Cadet J.P. O’Reagan writes to “Tap” (It was Thomas A. Parks’ initials. All my father’s friends during the war called him “Tap”)

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.

“Joe Gay”

2nd Lt. Gay February 16, 1943, Advanced Flight Graduation

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 1930s, Joe’s father moved the family from North Carolina to the nation’s capital 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 on 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 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.

Death of a Fort – Unidentified B-17 in flames and losing a wing – USAF Photo

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.

“Carey”

2nd Lt. Carey February 16, 1943 Advanced Flight Graduation

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 bail 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 fourth 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.

“Ruhl”

2nd Lt. Ruhl – February 16, 1943, Advanced Flight Graduation

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 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.

USAF Photo/Boeing B-17

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 box indicates the 50 mile training range the B-17 should have stayed within. The dotted line to the northwest shows how far the crew strayed and where they crashed.

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 relation 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.

“Freemole”

2nd Lt. Freemole February 16, 1943, Advanced Flight Graduation

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 missions 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 bailout. 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 the Freemole crew were buried in common graves in the village cemetery.

Maynard Freemole was three months shy of his 21st birthday.

After taking off from Snetterton, bombers from the 96th Bomb Group flew northwest and assembled with B-17s from other bomb groups just off the coast of England. Then they flew northeast across the North Sea. Turning south, they hit Bremen and turned for home. Freemole’s plane went down near the village of Poppenweir.

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.

“Ross”

2nd Lt. Ross     February 16, 1943, Advanced Flight Graduation

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.

“Etaugh”

1937 – Manual Training School – Peoria, Illinois – (back row) At 6’2″, sixteen-year-old Howard Etaugh towered over his classmates – Yearbook Picture from Ancestry.com
2nd Lt. Etaugh February 16, 1943, Advanced Flight Graduation

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.

1940s – Consolidated B-24 Liberator over Maxwell Field Alabama – USAF Photo

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 to drop 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 onboard instead of ten.

The mission to Székesfehérvár, Hungary

At the appointed time, the B-24s took off, assembled, and headed out across the Adriatic. Their mission that day was to destroy the railroad center at Székesfehérvár, Hungry.

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.

“Armstrong”

2nd Lt. Armstrong February 16, 1943, Advanced Flight Graduation

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”

P/O Thomas was probably a 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.

“Colville”

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 upslope.

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.

Ed Hnizdor reported that his Chinese rescuers carried him on a stretcher to a facility run by the 13th Medical Battalion. The 13th had a jungle hospital at Kamaing that received its supplies by airdrop. Kamaing wouldn’t have been much more than a sixty-minute flight from Dinjan so the early hour fits. The line between Dinjan and Kamaing also closely matches the compass heading on which the C-47 was flying that morning. However, this is just a guess.

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.

NEXT – Learning the Art of War – 5. They Wanted Wings…

2nd Lt. Parks – February 16, 1943 – Advanced Flight Graduation
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