Saturday, November 28, 2009

Interview with 95th Ball Turret Gunner Robert Fay

I had the pleasure of talking with 95th BG ball turret gunner Robert 'Bob' Fay this evening as part of the final research for my book. Fay flew 35 missions in a B-17 Flying Fortress between September 13, 1944 and early March, 1945. Throughout his time at Horham, Fay kept a diary. "I'd come home from a mission, and make notes while it was still fresh in my mind," he remembers. However, at the end of the war, before he could send the diary home, it had to be passed by the Army censors. "They gutted the center section out, and left the rest. Later, when I was back in the States, they shipped the gutted part to me after censoring."

Fay flew on the Hiram Griffin crew, in the 334th Squadron. He ended up in the ball turret because of his small stature. At first, we flew whatever plane was available. When they showed up at their barracks, they found they had been assigned to Barracks 13. There was only one man inside. He had missed the mission a few days previously, and the other men of the two crews who shared the barracks with him had been shot down. "He was the only one left in there," remembers Fay, "and he was really in trouble mentally by that time." The Griffin crew promptly changed the number of their barracks to 12-B.

Finally, after a few missions, "we got a new bird and we named it Victory Devil. On missions, lots of times things didn't work out. You'd be pushed to a secondary target due to weather mostly, and when that happened, you often got a lot more than you asked for." One particularly memorable mission was to Merseberg, to hit a synthetic oil plant on November 14, 1944. We had to bomb with PFF (Pathfinder radar) even though we could see fairly well. The Germans had put up a smoke-screen that obliterated the target. But we made a tragic error. We turned twenty miles too late, and went over the target through a flak area. We were suddenly in range of hundreds of guns, and had to put up with fifteen minutes of flak. Wicker's crew burst into flames and damn near took us down with him. Grif saved the day by cutting the throttle. We lost fifty-six bombers and 30 fighters that day, because of that error. I wrote at the time that considering the loss of life and equipment, the mission was a failure."

Fay did not particularly mind the tight confines of the ball turret. However, there were several things he didn't care for. First, "I didn't like the fact that the ball had a door that had to be opened for you to get out, and if it didn't rotate right, you were a cooked goose. You had no chute in the ball; there was no room. Second, it was damn cold down there."

"I had to get pulled out twice after losing my oxygen. Fortunately, our crew called around frequently and made sure everybody answered. It was a team effort. I was pulled out unconscious by our waist gunner, Bob Hamlin. I owe him a debt for that."

Close calls were frequent. Fay saw many bombers explode, or go down in flames, as well as American and German fighter aircraft. Flying in the winter of 1944 was dangerous, as the weather was terrible. On a December 16 mission to Stuttgart, the weather got so bad that Griffin had to drop out of formation and try to return alone. "We were out of oxygen, so had to drop to lower altitude. By the time we got back, you could hardly see the runway. Three ships overshot the runway that day and had to be scrapped."

Flak was the main enemy on many missions. "We'd get briefed for twelve flak guns and then we'd go over the target and there would be 100. On one mission down the Ruhr Valley, we ran the gauntlet of 1,200 flak guns. And then on another mission, there would be none."

German fighters still made frequent calls. Once, Fay saw two of the new German jet fighters, the Me262s, suddenly scream through the formation. "All they did was fly through and by the time I got a burst off they were gone! We knew they (Me262s) were there but didn't know when we'd run into them."

The closest Fay came to death was when a German shell ricocheted off the armor-plate behind his back in the ball, tearing a gash in the only place on the ball that could withstand such a hit. Otherwise, I would not be here."

As the crew neared the magic number 35, they had to try to make sure to finish at roughly the same time. Some days, one or more of the crew would be sick or couldn't fly. At the end of Fay's tour, he had to fly two missions after most of the rest were finished. "They all were there waiting for me at the end of the runway when I came back."

After the war, Fay didn't talk much about his experiences, but after a while, I began to get together with the other men on the crew. To this day, Fay and his wife have visits with the crew's original navigator, Bob Inman, as well as the co-pilot, Ken Wright. All three made it to the reunion in Dallas, Texas in October.

"We were very fortunate," he says.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This B-17 was One Tough Aircraft

They all came back to base alive, except togglier Staff Sgt. George E. Abbott of East Lebanon, PA. The bottom photo is one of the most famous of the air war.

No longer possible to cut and paste text, but I am posting the photos and the link to an amazing article about a 398th BG B-17 piloted by Lt. Lawrence M. DeLancey of Corvallis, Oregon, that took a direct hit and came home October 15, 1944, with all the crew alive but the togglier, who had been killed instantly when he took a direct flak hit.

Read the story that accompanies these incredible photographs here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Day I Visited the Ruins of the 95th Bomb Group Base at Horham, by Ken Hutcherson

The Vergene W. Ford Crew, 335th Squadron, 95th Bomb Group. Back Row: Vergene Ford, Pilot; Murray Saylor, Copilot; Julian Meyer, Bombardier; Cletus Comisky, Navigator. Front Row: Ken Hutcherson, Radio Operator; Willis Perry, Top Turret Gunner/Engineer; Robert Evans, Waist Gunner; Richard Peterson, Ball Turret Gunner; Marvin Casaday, Armorer/Waist Gunner; Leonard Styczynski (Stevens); Tail Gunner. (Photo from 95th BG website)

Another crew photo. Ken Hutcherson is in the back row, second from left. (Photo from 95th BG Website)

95th Bomb Group Veteran Kenneth Hutcherson poses at the crossroads near Horham during his return visit in August, 1972. Hutcherson flew with the 335th Squadron as a Radio Operator on a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War Two. (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Hutcherson)

This is one of my favorite written accounts of a World War Two bomber crewman's return to his old base. The full version will be appearing in the 95th BG history, out next year. Kenneth Hutcherson was a young radio operator on a B-17 crew when he first saw Horham during the war. He wrote of his return in August of 1972:

"It was a beautiful summer day the likes of which we rarely saw during the summer of 1944," he begins, "The train for Ipswich, Diss and Norwich, left at 8:30 AM so we got up at 7, had a quick breakfast at the Hilton (not like the ones we used to get at the Regent Palace) and took the tube to the Liverpool Street Station...

"We finally managed to get a seat in a compartment not unlike the ones all of us remember vaguely with the webbing overhead for packages and luggage...

After arriving at the train station at Diss, Hutcherson hailed a cab to Horham. The driver was not certain how to find the old base in nearby Horham, and had to stop several times to ask for directions. But finally, "after travelling the eight miles to Horham, we pulled onto a hard stand at the edge of a wheat field and said we were there. It was hard for me to get my bearings at first. There was a farmer across the road on a combine mowing his wheat. He stopped his tractor and came over to assist us and everything started to fall into place.

"One of the headquarters buildings was still there and the farmer took us through the briars and underbrush to get inside. You would find it hard to believe but there were still pin-up pictures pasted on the wall from Yank Magazine and also a Sad Sack cartoon stenciled on one wall. Over one doorway was stenciled 'Through These Doors Pass the Best Damn Flyers in the World'. What an experience!

"Our barracks from the 335th Squadron was a crumbled mess of corrugated rusty steel. We couldn't get back there because of the crops and no roads but I took a picture of it from the distance. The control tower crumbled last year but the main runway was still there. We drove down the runway which is still used for small planes for crop dusting. We took pictures there and also at the crossroads with the signs--Horham, Diss, Ipswich, Norwich and Eye. On the way back to Diss we stopped and took pictures of the thatched roof houses which I did not remember."

Upon arrival at Diss, the Cockney taxi driver refused to accept a tip, though he had stayed with them all day long. "I'm a cockney from London...and my word is my bond," he told Hutcherson."

Hutcherson finally persuaded the cabbie to take two pounds. Interestingly, Hutcherson had never visited the town of Diss during the war, as it was off-limits.

He then boarded the train, the mists of time again wrapped his memories in a comfortable embrace, and he returned to London.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Astute Review of Untold Valor

Posting this review by Jan Peczkis of my book on Amazon. Mr. Peczkis is that rare Amazon reviewer who actually reads the book and then is provides some synthesis and analysis. Thank you, Mr. Peczkis.

Click here for Mr. Peczkis' review, which focuses on German treatment of Jewish American POWs.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Green Farm Accident Report, November 19, 1943

This goes with the post immediately preceding it. Read that one first.

The Green Farm Crash, Redlingfield, November 19, 1943

This quiet, leafy grove of trees behind the replacment farm house at Redlingfield, Suffolk, contains many relics of Rongstad's crashed B-17 Flying Fortress. (Rob Morris Photo)

The same grove on the fateful day. (Army photo)

The farmhouse burns down. The Army Air Force paid the farmers to erect a new one, and it is still there. (Army photo)

The thatched farmhouse roof goes up in flames. (Army Photo)

The replacement farmhouse, June 2008. (Rob Morris photo)
Old shed across the lane from Green Farm, survived intact. (Rob Morris photo)

Wreckage from the Green Farm crash, possibly the ball turret. (Army photo)

This blogger site has gotten increasingly hard to use lately. First, I can't figure out how to move the photos around. Second, I can't copy-and-paste from other sites of my writing, so this is going to be short and sweet.

Twisted, charred wreckage of the Rongstad B-17. (Army Photo)

On November 19, 1943 a B-17 of the 95th Bomb Group piloted by Montanan Kenneth Rongstad took off from its base at Horham. Rongstad, an experienced pilot, banked too close to the ground, stalled, and crashed into a farm in nearby Redlingfield. All members of the crew were killed either in the initial crash or in the detonations of the 500-pound bombs on board.

I just got word that the English in the area are considering erecting a monument to the crash victims, so I thought I'd post some photos to help out the cause.

I visited the crash site in June 2008 and took the color photos above. The black and white photos are from the official Army Air Force reports, 95th archives.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Air Force Wives of World War Two

Bob and Patsy Ann Cozens, from their Christmas card last year. Two of my favorite people. (Photo courtesy Bob and Pat Cozens)
I am going to retrieve my photo of Patsy Ann Cozens shortly. It's on the other computer. But here is Bob's plane, named after Pat. (Photo from 95th BG website)

Geri and Fred Delbern, 1943. (Photo courtesy Geri Marshall)

Geri today. (Photo courtesy Geri Marshall)

Geri and Fred Delbern on their wedding day, 1942. (Photo courtesy Geri Marshall)

Robert and Bettylou Capen on their wedding day, 1943, Sheppard Field, Texas, shortly before Bob shipped to England to fly 34 missions on a B-17 as a ball turret gunner. (Photo courtesy of Bettylou Capen)

The 95th Bomb Group's commitment to telling the entire story of the Group during its existence included a last-minute addition of a chapter about the wives of the men who flew. These brave women endured frequent moves during training, and then a long period of 'sweating out the missions' as their spouses flew dangerous combat missions over Europe. I have had the honor of interviewing three of these ladies in the past few months for the book--Bettylou Capen, wife of ball turret gunner Bob Capen; Patsy Ann Cozens, wife of pilot Bob Cozens; and Geri Marshall, widow of pilot Fred Delbern.

Though I don't want to give away any spoilers from the upcoming book, I did want to share some photos of these incredible ladies. In researching and writing this chapter, I found that they are true heroes as much as their husbands.

Bob Capen and Bob Cozens returned from the war. Fred Delbern did not. He was killed on a mission in 1943, making sure all of his men had bailed out of his stricken B-17 'Lonesome Polecat II' before the aircraft crashed into the North Sea a few hundred yards offshore of Texel Island. When the plane hit the water, Delbern was the only living man aboard. His copilot, Donald Neff, had been killed and sat in the seat next to him. It must have been a lonely end for this brave man. Sadly, though Geri had written to Fred every day, he had not received a single letter when the Lonesome Polecat II made her final flight.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Writer's Lesson Learned

My wife Geri, 100th Bomb Group Pilot Herb Alf, and I back in 2002 in Roseburg, Oregon, with fragments of Herbs memoirs, written on both sides of sheets of Prison Camp toilet paper. Herb passed away a few years after this photo. His book, 'Petals of Fire', is perhaps the greatest novel of the air war over Europe and the POW experience.

In the past week, I have had a lesson driven home to me not once, but twice, concerning my vocation as a writer of World War Two military aviation history. I have been reminded, not once but twice, to refocus on the Big Picture. It has also humbled me, brought me new insight, and made me a better human being.

By nature, I am a very busy person. I rarely let up. Till recently, I juggled four jobs. I taught school, I taught night classes, I operated on online sales business, and I wrote books and articles. I went from one job to the next, rarely resting, and weekends were just another word for grading, planning lessons, and writing or editing projects. This past summer, I spent 12 hour days, seven days a week, writing the unit history of the 95th Bomb Group. I only made one trip to my beloved Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks all summer, and when the school year began, I felt like I was working less, not more.

Twice this week, members of our Greatest Generation have basically taken me out behind the woodshed and reminded me that I need to focus on my commitments as a writer. It has not been an easy thing to hear. But it was needed. Members of the Greatest Generation expect that when you commit to something, you will follow through, and without delay. That's the way they were brought up, that's what made them successful, and that's what they expect of others.

As a result of my encounters this week with two men I very highly respect, I have come to the realization that I need to prioritize better. I am therefore, as of today, no longer working night school, and am shutting down my online business. Hopefully, these moves will free me up to spend more time doing what I really should be doing---and that is telling the stories of World War Two airmen.

Life is full of lessons learned, some of them painful. The lessons I learn pale in contrast to those learned by the men I admire and for whom I write. I will not let them down again.

Swedish Internees: Photos of a Forced Landing, May 19, 1944

The heavily-damaged 95th Bomb Group B-17 'Smiling Sandy Sanchez' rests in a ploughed field in Sweden after a wheels-up crash landing on May 19, 1944. The crew spent the rest of the war as Swedish internees.
Another angle of the plane crash. All on board survived.

The W.S. Waltham crew pose for a photo in Sweden. Fournier is in the front row, second from left, shirtless with camera. (Photos courtesy of James Fournier)

Photos from James Fournier, Bombardier on the W.S. Waltham Crew, 95th Bomb Group, 334th Squadron. The crew, flying the B-17 'Smiling Sandy Sanchez' was shot up on May 19, 1944, plunging twenty-four thousand feet in a flat spin before pulling out at three thousand feet, and eventually crashing in a ploughed field in Sweden. The crew spent the rest of the war as Swedish internees. (Photos courtesy of James Fournier, whom I interviewed at the Tucson Reunion of the 95th in 2008). Fournier's story will appear in the upcoming 95th Unit History which I recently completed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

High Noon Over Hasseluenne: The 100th BG March 6, 1944

Highly recommended book on the 100th Bomb Group. I know both authors and respect their work greatly. Buy it here on Amazon and read editorial reviews.

95th Bomb Group Video: The Final Cut

This is the final cut of a video dedicated to the 95th Bomb Group.

Czechs Keep Alive Memories of Battle Over Ore Mountains on September 11, 1944

It never ceases to touch me deeply how Europeans are so much more linked to memories of the air war than Americans and to the extent people will go to preserve the memories of the men who flew the skies in World War Two. The latest example of this is found in the Czech Republic. I became acquainted with a pilot and historian by the name of Michal Holy about a year ago due to our mutual interest in WWII aviation history. Michal put me in touch with a museum in the Czech Republic called The Museum of the Air Battle over the Ore Mountains on 11th September 1944. The museum is located in the town of Kovarska, in the northwest part of Bohemia in the Chomutov district, about 120 km from Prague. The town is nestled up against the German border, a very short distance from the German city of Dresden (it appears to be less than 150 km between them on a map), which explains how the area became a pivotal location in the air war. More on that later. The museum was created in 1997 to honor the veterans--both American and German-- of a classic air battle that raged in the skies over the eastern Czech Republic on September 11, 1944.

The booklet about the battle, written by Dr. Jan Zdiarsky of the Museum, reports that the day started like any other day, and that "the intense thunder of war had so far not touched the mountains that defined the border between Germany and the remnants of Czechoslovakia, but this day was fated to bring the realization that war had come even here. This day saw the meeting of the American 8th Army Air Force and the Luftwaffe in a particularly violent encounter. Only a few minutes of combat produced the loss of over fifty aircraft on both sides."

In fact, casualty figures for this battle run a full four pages in Dr. Zdiarsky's book Black Monday over the Ore Mountains. This book can be ordered by emailing the museum at To quote the website, "On September 11, 1944, high above the Ore Mountains, on the Czech-German frontier, a formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 100th Bomb Group, 3rd Bomb Division...escorted by P-51 Mustang fighters of the 55th and 339th Fighter Group...clashed with a formation of German Me109 and FW190 intercept fighters of the II. (Sturm) and III. Gruppe Jagdeschwader 4...Due to the furiousness of the combat, most of the shot-down aircraft fell in a very small region of the Czech and German Ore Mountains...This sunny September day entered the history as Black Monday over the Ore Mountains."

Also involved in this battle were aircraft from the 95th Bomb Group (H), though the 95th's losses were much lighter. Michal Holy and Dr. Zdiarsky sent me some pieces from the recovered crash of B-17 42-97334 of the 95th Bomb Group, known as Haard Luck, that crashed during the air battle.

One 100th BG B-17, piloted by Lt. Albert E. Trommer, actually fell on the small town of Kovarska. The plane, 42-102657, came apart over the town and the tail section landed on the roof of the town school, impaling itself into the roof. In the minutes directly after noon, four B-17 bombers from the 100th fell into the town of Kovarska. Most of these planes either broke up in the air or were crippled when the crews bailed out. As a result, 23 of the men on board were killed and only 13 survived to become POWs. Another 10 B-17s fell nearby. The vast majority of the men on these planes also perished. In fact, total losses ran to 52 American airmen KIA. The 100th's 350th Squadron lost all nine planes dispatched, and the 100th as a whole lost one-third of its planes.

The German fighter pilots fought valiently and also suffered losses, though due to the fact that each fighter carried only one man instead of ten, the totals were lower. 21 German fighter pilots were killed in the battle. Losses were high because of the fact that American P-51 Mustangs also joined the battle. The 55th FG lost two pilots killed and one POW.

Total losses, KIA, WIA, or POW ran to 143 Americans and 32 German.

Townspeople tell of the rain of aircraft parts, parachutes, and men from the terrible battle overhead. Many men jumped from low altitude and hit the ground before their chutes could deploy. Men were impaled on trees and one dead airman even landed in a shop on the town's main street. Carnage was everywhere. It was a day that the young children of the town would never forget, and this is perhaps why the town to this day sees this battle as such an important part of its history.

I have only scratched the surface of this amazing story. I highly recommend a visit to the website, which has an English translation as well. It is very easy to navigate and one could spend several hours there. It is also an excellent site for researchers for the 100th BG or for the German researchers of the two Luftwaffe fighter groups involved.

Here is a link to the museum's virtual tour

Here is a link to the museum's Parts Identification Project

Veterans of both the 8th Air Force and the German Luftwaffe meet as friends at the ceremony on September 15, 2007.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rough Cut: 95th Bomb Group Tribute Video


Music: Europe, 'The Final Countdown'

Movie footage: via Youtube

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tom Landry: From B-17 Pilot to NFL Hall of Fame

The serious visage of famed Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry is one of the most familiar in American sports, but few know that Coach Landry, who passed away in 2000, was also a World War Two B-17 bomber pilot in World War Two.
Born in Mission, Texas, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, Landry joined the Air Corps after a semester of college, and flew 30 combat missions over Europe in World War Two, including one where he had to crash-land his Fort in Belgium after it ran out of fuel.
Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant at Lubbock Army Air Field, Landry was assigned to the 493rd Bomb Group at RAF Debach, England. Flying as a co-pilot in the 493rd's 860th Bomb Squadron, Landry flew his missions between November 1944 and April 1945.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rite of Passage Book Review

Recently finished a great book about WWII bomber crews entitled Rite of Passage: A Teenager's Chronicle of Combat and Captivity in Nazi Germany, and highly recommend it to readers with an interest in WWII bomber crews and the Prisoner of War experience. Click on the hyperlinked book title for more information. Readers can get a signed copy for the same price as a traditional trade paperback in a bookstore. Would make a great birthday, Christmas or Chanukah gift for the WWII aviation buff on your list. My review follows:

"Many books have been written about bomber crew experiences in the skies over Europe in World War Two. And many have been written about the Prisoner of War experiences of those crewmen who were shot from the skies. What makes Ray Matheny's book stand out is the meticulous attention to detail and his eye for description. Matheny's book was originally popular in Germany in translation, and only recently has it become available to the American reading public. Matheny was a top turret gunner/flight engineer aboard the B-17 'Deacon's Sinners' of the Eighth Air Force's 384th Bomb Group. Graced with dollops of mechanical and technical aptitude, he is so trusted by his pilot and copilot that he becomes, in essence, a third pilot on the crew, flying the plane for hours while the pilots catch up on their sleep. He describes the interpersonal dynamics of his crew in great detail, and I found this to be fascinating. The pilot, a frustrated fighter pilot wannabe, who takes unnecessary risks with the airplane. The copilot, perhaps justly feeling that he is more qualified and at times resenting Matheny's flying time. Each man on the crew is fleshed out so that the reader can identify with him. This becomes a double-edged sword when the crew is shot down, killing most of the men. And that is where Matheny's adventure takes on a completely new twist, as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. Matheny gives the reader an intimate glimpse of POW life, and of the long march near the end of the war that the emaciated POWs make to stay ahead of the advancing Russian Army.

The book, filled with three-dimensional, carefully drawn characters and situations, stands out in the many books I've read over the years in this genre. I cannot recommend it highly enough. A major addition to military aviation history"