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:

Clipping from Harrisburg Telegraph - Newspapers.com

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.

aircraft from 1943-2-16 Graduation Booklet-2
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:

1943-01-20 Russ to TAPjr-Envelope
1943-01-20 Russ to TAPjr - letter
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.

Edwin Whitefield
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

Envelope 1943-01-26 TAPjr to VWP
Page 1943-01-26 TAPjr to VWP-2
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.

1943-02-06 Orders Page 1 copy
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.
1943-02-08 Orders A page 2
1943-02-08 Orders A page 3

Report Card

Pages from 1943-02-16 Final Grade Sheet
Apparently, Identifying Naval Vessels was a problem for dad.

Graduation – February 16th of February, 1943

1943-02-16 Ticket

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.

Meikleham clipping_25334562
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
rockwell keeney clipping_25338085
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.

Untitled
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.

McComb_Daily_Journal_Mon__Apr_26__1943_-1

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.

1943-02-16 Diploma
Pages from 1943-2-16 Graduation Booklet
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

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.

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.

1942-12-28-letter-oreagan-to-tapjr-envelope-copy
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”)
1942-12-28 Letter OReagan to TAPjr page 1.jpg

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”

1943-2-16-graduation-booklet-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.

b-17-on-fire
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”

1943-2-16-graduation-booklet-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”

1943-2-16-graduation-booklet-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.

Boeing B-17E
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.

Winslow - Google Maps
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”

1943-2-16-graduation-booklet-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.

Bremen - Google Maps
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”

1943-2-16-graduation-booklet-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-howard-etaugh-class-pix
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
1943-2-16-graduation-booklet-etaugh
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.

719px-maxwell_b-24
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.

San Giovanni Rotondo - Google Maps
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”

1943-2-16-graduation-booklet-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.

Kendriya Vidyalaya Dinjan - Google Maps
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…

1943-2-16c-tap-wings-009-envelope-8-1
2nd Lt. Parks – February 16, 1943 – Advanced Flight Graduation

Learning the Art of War: Episode 3: Basic Flight

©2016 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


A Ground School Instructor…

In August of 1942, as my father began his Primary Flight training at Carlstrom Field in Florida,  J.D. Salinger, the future author of “Catcher in the Rye“, was arriving at the Army Air Force Basic Flight School at Bainbridge, Georgia. He would be stationed there for the next nine months.

The twenty-three-year-old writer had been drafted earlier that year and subsequently assigned to the Bainbridge Army Airfield as a ground school instructor.

In the biography, J.D.Salinger: A Life, author Kenneth Slawenski writes that Salinger, although “not mechanically inclined“, somehow found himself teaching young pilots the inner workings of aircraft engines.

In October of 1942, two months after Salinger became an instructor, Cadet Parks and the class of 43-B arrived at Bainbridge for their Basic Flight Training…

That’s right… There is a distinct possibility my father learned about aircraft engines from J.D. Salinger.

War is a strange business.

Continue reading “Learning the Art of War: Episode 3: Basic Flight”

Learning the Art of War: Episode 2: Primary Flight

©2016 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


The above picture was taken at Carlstrom Field sometime in late August or early September of 1942

In the photograph, aviation cadets, Rodney L. Due (left) from Chicago, Richard B. Bixler  (right) from Annville, Pennsylvania and their instructor (center) leave the flight line after putting in some time in the dual cockpit PT-17 Stearman in the background.

On the back of the photograph, my father titled the scene, “That’s enough for today.

Continue reading “Learning the Art of War: Episode 2: Primary Flight”

Early 1942: Enlisting in the Cause


The Japanese attack on Pearl harbor took place on Sunday, December 7th, 1941.  By the following Wednesday, America was formally at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy.

As the United States entered the conflict, it had 1.8 million citizens in uniform. Over the next twelve months, that number would more than double as another two million men and women enlisted or were drafted. By the end of the war, over 12 million Americans would be serving in America’s armed forces. 8.7 million of them went overseas.

My mother and father were two of the 8.7 million Americans who served on foreign shores during World War II.  But, in January of 1942, they were still civilians and 5 full years away from the chance meeting my existence would depend on.

Continue reading “Early 1942: Enlisting in the Cause”

Veterans’ Day: November 11, 2016

©2016 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


During World War II, both of my parents and all three of my uncles served overseas in the United States Armed Forces. Only four of them came home.

Above, from left to right…

Continue reading “Veterans’ Day: November 11, 2016”

Learning the Art of War: Episode 1: Pre-Flight

©2016 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


During the first two weeks of April 1942, the war news was pretty bleak.

In Europe, Adolf Hitler was planning a summer offensive against Russia’s oil fields in the Caucasus and a move to seize Stalingrad.

In the Pacific, Japan was gaining control of the Philippines and, on the 9th of April, over 60,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war began a forced relocation that is now known as The Bataan Death March.

At sea, the Japanese Navy sank the Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire, the aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, and the Royal Australian Navy destroyer, HMAS Vampire.

Continue reading “Learning the Art of War: Episode 1: Pre-Flight”

A Girl from Maine Goes to War

©2016 Tom Parks – All Rights Reserved


On June 6th, 1944, allied forces crossed the English Channel, stormed the beaches of Normandy, and began pushing the Germans back towards Berlin. The long-planned and eagerly anticipated D-Day invasion was the beginning of the end of the Nazi nightmare that had gripped Europe since September of 1939.  

However, at that moment, no one knew exactly when the war would be over. No one knew it was going take 11 more months of worldwide death, destruction, and heartache before Germany finally surrendered and another two months after that before Japan capitulated.

Continue reading “A Girl from Maine Goes to War”
%d bloggers like this: