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