The American Red Cross Aeroclub At Wendling

By Birdie Schmidt Larrick, Program Director, ARC Aeroclub

© Copyright 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association 2017 - All rights reserved

Winifred "Freddie" Small as Aeroclub director, and I as program director, arrived at Wendling on a dark night in early December 1943. We were escorted by Dallet Jones, first ARC director for the 392nd Bomb Group. We stayed in the small hospital on the base because there was nowhere else to accommodate us.

During the night we could hear the sound of a small plane overhead and there were several explosions. As our room was just inside the front entrance, we also could hear swearing people scurrying in and out. Someone stumbled out having forgotten his flashlight, and came swearing back in again, trying to find it.

We didn't know what was going on. No one rapped on our door telling us to head for the bomb shelter, so we just stayed in bed and pulled the covers up. Thus was our introduction to Wendling.

Within two weeks we opened the club on the night of 23 December 1943. It was specifically for the use of all 2,000 enlisted personnel on the base; however, the officers on the base were welcome to use the library facilities at any time, and the rest of the club on other occasions as guests of the enlisted men. (The 1,000 officers, flying and ground support, had their own Officers' Club.)

The club was of Nissen hut construction like most of the buildings on the base. There was a staff of about 30 English people, including our manageress, Dorothy Blundell. The largest room in the club was the snack bar, where we served sandwiches, jam-tarts, sweets (candy), coffee, tea, hot chocolate and soft drinks in the evening. As time passed, we opened the snack bar in mid-morning for hot rolls and beverages. This was a popular time for a break and for those who hadn't had breakfast. Later, we had an afternoon soft drink hour at 3:30 p.m.

Annie Claxton eventually became our cashier as Gen. Eisenhower had requested that the ARC charge. We did charge a minimal amount. If we began to make money, we had a free night in the snack bar. That happened about once a month and kept us in a "break-even" status. Our Scottish bookkeeper, Elsa MacDonald, kept us in line here. As we understood the reasoning behind the general's request, it was because our American soldiers were better paid than their English counterparts and the general thought the soldiers' extra money could be used to strengthen the recreational service they were receiving and not embarrass their English counterparts by flashing their wealth in stores and pubs of their host English villages.

Another very important food service we had was to take sandwiches, cakes, cookies (biscuits), hot coffee, tea, cocoa, cigarettes (how times have changed) and gum to serve outside the interrogation room to returning bomber crews as they entered the room for debriefing. There was, of course, no charge for this service to the enlisted personnel and officers as they were returning from combat.

Other rooms in the club included a small game or card room furnished with card tables and chairs, a larger room with two ping-pong tables where we ran tournaments and eventually competed with another base, a library and a lounge with a big brick fireplace. Letter writers abounded here. Other recreational activities included Saturday night bingo parties, the coveted prize was a fresh egg scrounged from the surrounding country side (this beat the powdered eggs served in the enlisted men's mess), a concert program on Sunday evenings as we managed to get a piano in the snack bar, dancing classes twice weekly for both beginners and advanced, Snack Bar Jamborees with our "Hill-Billy Band" on Tuesday and Saturdays, German classes once a week, State Nights during which we honored GIs on the base from the particular states, and Forum Nights - one of which was called "Know Your Enemy." Emmett Fore, Special Service Officer, and I visited a nearby RAF base to arrange exchange programs for these.

Later, Lt. Col. Gilbert introduced me to Maj. J.A. Hardy, author of Key, in which Constance Bennett played. Major and Mrs. Hardy lived near the base and he promised to speak at one of our Forum Nights. We invited them to dinner before the program. Ice cream was served for dessert and it was the first they'd seen since the beginning of the war. (Our ice cream was made on the base from powdered milk and powered eggs). Maj. Hardy was with British Intelligence and told us about his escape from a German POW camp during WWI.

When Freddie Small was transferred to the ARC Clubmobile in March 1944, I was made club director, but didn't receive the help of another ARC girl, Helen Malsed, until early May. Helen's charm, ever ready smile and willingness to help made her a favorite on the base. Meanwhile, several GIs pitched in to help. One in particular I remember was Ferd Petrarca. Eventually, Ferd was "spared" to us by the military in the afternoons as ajack-of-alI-trades. He tightened up all the wobbly table legs in the snack bar, blackened stoves, etc. He was the oil that kept things running smoothly.

We had a party to thank our English staff with a Red Cross pin presentation ceremony for those who had earned them for their service in the Aeroclub. I shall never forget Angie, a 72-year-old English woman who cycled in each day to help with the chores in the club, or Nora, a plucky young Cockney from London, surviving the war out of context up in Norfolk. Then there was Mazie, tall, dark curly-haired "Miss Efficiency." She teased me with a sly smile about my love for raw carrots, saying, "Raw carrots are for horses, Miss Schmidt."

Col. Rendle came to this staff party to pay his respects, kidding us that he had come to check up to ensure the Red Cross wasn't putting on a brawl!

Military personnel on the base were very kind to us, as were as our English neighbors. For example, the engineers brought a bulldozer and really flattened the ground surrounding the club. Then one of our neighboring farmers plowed and harrowed the ground and sowed grass seed for us. George Cadwalader, of the Quartermaster Corps, helped solve our fuel problems. With M/Sgt. "Vic" Vickers on hand, a serious electrical problem wasn't a problem for very long.

The Utilities boys made the slotted cement in-the-ground bike racks for us on an experimental basis. They proved so successful they were built elsewhere on the base. The Ordnance boys contributed bent bomb fins from which floor-stand ash trays were made. We couldn't have opened the club each day without the genial dependability of Jim Goar as Transportation Officer. He juggled vehicles and personnel not only to help us get our staff to and from work, but also to help us transport our food and equipment and then set it up outside the debriefing room to serve those returning from missions.

BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
By Birdie Schmidt Larrick

The following very embarrassing incident occurred at the Aeroclub. Many people knew about it because they were part of the drama. My only salvation was that I was security-conscious:

One night a GI who was a stranger wandered through the back door of the Aeroclub's kitchen, asking where he could get food. He spoke with a Dutch accent which consequently frightened the girls working in the kitchen - particularly since he shouldn't have been there in the first place. To a couple of MPs who were always around, this GI's clothing wasn't quite right-and they'd never seen him before. He was a striking individual with a bald head and a Dutch accent. He then left the kitchen to find the proper entrance to the club.

Meanwhile, I remembered the MPs mentioning to me that there were supposed to be two escaped German prisoners of war in the vicinity. In view of all this, I decided I'd better report these happenings to the Duty Officer (OD) because our club had been warned on other occasions to watch for suspicious individuals. I telephoned the OD, explained the situation at the club, and said that he could do what he liked, if anything. He scared the wits out of me when he said he'd be right down. By this time the focus of our attention had turned up in the library and appeared to our staff to be acting furtively.

The OD, accompanied by a host of MPs, arrived and descended on the hapless man. In the flurry of questions that followed, the stranger didn't know who his CO was, he didn't know this, he didn't know that, and the one man who he said could positively identify him declared he'd never seen him before. The OD then called to check rosters and the stranger's name didn't appear anywhere, so he was taken to the guard house.

After all that, one of the boys in the club piped up stating that the center of attention had moved into his barracks that day. I threw my hands up and told him to get to the guard house immediately and identify the poor lost soul.

Frankly. I think we were all a little disappointed. We thought we'd caught a German spy and he turned out to be a bonafide new arrival, Cpl. Hershcl P. Van Sickle, from Indianapolis, IN. We hope he forgave us all. Lou Seguin, author of the 576th Squadron's Dope Sheet, said Cpl. Van Sickle had been told it was rough in the ETO and now he believed it.

A SPECIAL DAY
By Birdie Schmidt Larrick, ARC Aeroclub Director

On 8 August 1944, a very exciting event occurred for the American Red Cross at Wendling. Helen Malsed, another ARC girl, and I were honored when one of the base defense tanks and a B-24 Liberator were named "Helen's Happy ARC Warriors" and "Birdie Schmidt - ARC" respectively. It was, as Lt. Colonel Lorin Johnson said, "The 392nd's way of saying `Thank you' for the long months of service you have given."

The festivities began on Sunday, 6 August, when we had tea at the Aeroclub for the tank and Liberator crews. At 3 p.m. on the following Tuesday, the christening ceremonies took place at the dispersal area opposite the flight control tower. It was a beautiful, sunny day and just before the ground ceremonies, we were thrilled by the sight of the 392nd's own P-47 Thunderbolt fighter buzzing the tanks and the Liberator.

Col. Johnson expressed appreciation for the work of the ARC and what the Aeroclub meant to the men by presenting a shiny silver Liberator for me to christen. After thanking Col. Johnson and assuring him the Red Cross service would continue, I broke a bottle of Coca-Cola over the nose guns, christening the ship "Birdie Schmidt - ARC" in the name of the 392nd Bomb Group. I then presented the B-24's flight and ground crew with cigarette lighters as "good luck" tokens. The lighters, which had small red crosses emblazoned on them, were given to me by Mr. Harry Palmer, an ARC executive. The crews and I were all thrilled with the lighters.

Christening 42-503871 "T” Birdie Schmidt, 576 Squadron in honor of Miss Birdie Schmidt, ARC director. 63 sorties: MIA over enemy coastline February 15, 1945.

Apparently, Henry Hoffman, the B-24's pilot, said, "We were undecided on a name for our bomber and argued about it for 20 missions. Finally, someone suggest Birdie Schmidt and it went over unanimously."

The other members of the B-24's flying and ground crew were: Chester Gorton, copilot; James Randall, navigator; Donald Wise, bombardier; Robert Boney, engineer/top turret gunner; William McNutt, radio operator; Virgil Dopson and John Kamacho, waist gunners; Otto Sanders, ball turret gunner; Robert Goo, tail gunner; and the three ground crewmen were Joseph Haluka, crew chief, and John McDonough and John Koppeler, mechanics.

After the presentations, we all moved over to the tanks where, in the same manner, Helen christened the lead tank "Helen's Happy ARC Warriors." Then she presented the tank crew, (who were resplendent in battle dress-fatigues, helmets and goggles), with pipes. Those boys were all ex-combat men.

It was a wonderful occasion, during which many photographs were taken and just as the christening ceremonies were finishing, the 392nd's bombers began returning from the group's 148th mission. We then hurried across to the debriefing area to serve the combat crews.

That evening we celebrated with a "Good Luck" Dinner in the Aeroclub Card Room. Guests included Col. Loren Johnson, CO of the 576th Squadron, home of the Birdie Schmidt - ARC, the CO of the tanks, all crews, the group's public relations section, visiting ARC personnel, and Lord Fermoy, accompanied by his two daughters, Mary and Frances. Previously, Col. Rendle in his official capacity as CO of the 392nd, had become a friend, in a neighborly fashion, of Lord and Lady Fermoy and their children, as they lived not far from base. They were invited to attend the christening ceremonies but only Lord Fermoy and his two daughters could come.

In 1994, both Lord and Lady Fermoy were deceased. Mary still lived in the Kings Lynn area and Frances was Lady Shand-Kydd, the mother of Lady Diana, former Princess of Wales.

THANKSGIVING - NOVEMBER 1944
By Birdie Schmidt Larrick, ARC Director

A cold November in 1944 was upon us. The most important thing was to work out a method of keeping the club warm. We succeeded rather well considering that we had worn-out stoves, cracked firebricks (sometimes none at all), and grates that continually fell out. Firebricks fell out of the lounge and library fireplaces. This couldn't be helped, considering that the rest of the base was in the same predicament and we were on the Utilities list for replacements as soon as they became available.

We also put an order in for the Clerk of the Works (Building Maintenance Superintendent) to deepen these lounge and library fireplaces so they wouldn't smoke so easily. What happened was that the bricklayers had to put the firebricks back in as they were and wait for official approval to deepen the fireplaces to come through miles of Air Ministry "red tape." Then the bricklayers would tear them all out again to deepen and rebuild. It was wasteful of time, energy and material to say nothing of the tear-filled coughing and inadequate heating problems the smoky fireplaces caused.

To further save on our coal supply, a very precious item during the winter months, we secured a field cooking range from the quartermaster to do some of our baking. It took quite a bit of getting used to by our cooks. However, those in charge at the mess hall were very helpful in lending us one of their men to show our cooks how to operate it. I relate these experiences only as examples of some of the frustrating and mundane living problems we always faced.

Thanksgiving was 23 November 1944. For many of us it was our second Thanksgiving in the ETO. (For our neighbors in the 44th Bomb Group at nearby Shipdham it was their third Thanksgiving in England).

In the light of the daily problems we faced, being many miles from home, missing loved ones, the loss by death and those missing in action around us and the visible destruction of the war in England, what did we have for which to be thankful?

Upon reflection, we weren't suffering on the Continent in some prison or refugee camp; we had enough to eat, clothes to wear, ways to keep warm; our loved ones and our country were not being ravaged by evil, power hungry madmen. All we had to do was to look around this England and see the legacies of war; be thankful this was not happening at home; be thankful to the British and other Allies for standing up to dictators; be thankful we had the equipment and support from those at home; be thankful we had committed men and women to pull our weight in this struggle and be thankful for all those who had already given their lives in this conflict so that we could enjoy the freedom we had.

In that atmosphere, Thanksgiving was celebrated that night in the Aeroclub with free buffets set in the lounge, card room and snack bar. With Helen Malsed's planning, a memorable sing-along was held in the snack bar.

On the occasion of our second Thanksgiving on the base, a supply of turkeys was delivered to the kitchens and a fine Thanksgiving dinner was prepared by our cooks who, unfortunately, failed to gut the turkeys prior to roasting our special meal.

The results were long lines of men, as far the eye could see, as all personnel sought needed relief and release in the latrines. Not wanting to indulge in the "long wait," I headed for the Bachelor Officers' Quarters, found no queue and a welcome toilet seat.

Moments later, the door swung open and I was confronted by a young lieutenant who boldly announced, "Sergeant! Don't you know this place is for officers only?"

Needless to say, I was not about to surrender this throne to him or to anyone else at that particular time and, in no uncertain terms, I so informed the one with the single silver bars on his shoulders.

A BRIGHT CHRISTMAS
By Birdie Schmidt Larrick and Jane Mallory, ARC Aeroclub Staff

Birdie Schmidt:

In December 1944 we celebrated with a victory dinner for the crew of the "Birdie Schmidt - ARC" who all safely had finished their missions in one piece, despite the fact they were really shot up, with John "Eyes" Kamacho wounded on the first mission after the christening.

The Aeroclub was thrilled to receive a citation commending our service to the 392nd from its CO, Lorin L. Johnson, on the occasion of our first anniversary at the base. It was read at the close of our anniversary program on Dec. 23 by Aeroclub committee member George Bremer. The anniversary program was entitled "March of Rhyme," and was written and read by Lou Seguin, with a musical accompaniment by Bob Jewell.

Since there were to be three successive days of celebration - our anniversary, the 23rd; Christmas Eve, the 24th; and Christmas Day, the 25th - we thought we should keep our anniversary celebration simple. Therefore "The March of Rhyme" was short and aptly capped with free ice cream and cake for all. Mrs. Bone, our first cook, baked and decorated for us two huge cakes with congratulatory messages. The cakes were carried on to the stage at the appropriate time in the script and illuminated by candles around them. Helen Malsed managed to return from Shipdham for the evening's program, while Winifred "Freddie" Small, of course, couldn't, as she was serving on the Clubmobi le with the U.S. First Army in Belgium.

On Christmas Eve a candlelight sing was featured in the club. The base Glee Club presented a spirit-lifting program of song, concluding with traditional Christmas carols which everyone joined in.

We woke up to a white Christmas day as a heavy hoar frost covered the ground and the trees. The fog that went with it caused the mission scheduled to be canceled. A party had been planned originally for 130 orphans and refugees from Dr. Barnardo's Home for Boys in Lexham, the Holm Hale village school children and the children of our staff, with the men on the base acting as hosts. The party was under Jane Mallory's supervision and in the following report she related how it happened:

Jane Mallory:

After picking up all the children in the nearby villages they were taken down to the perimeter where they all had the opportunity of seeing the inside of a Liberator. This in itself was quite a thrill for most of them, as it was their first real close-up view of an airplane. At this point the GIs really had their hands full in keeping order among 160 very eager kids. The children then piled back in the trucks and were brought back to the theater, which is right next to the Aeroclub.

Here they were greeted by the base orchestra, which rendered several appropriate numbers. Then the children themselves put on a program of their own, consisting of country dances, songs and recitations, and this really brought the house down.

They did an excellent job, and to see some of the smaller children, age 5 and 6, breaking forth in song and dance, was a sight to behold. The children were then shown several movie cartoons of Popeye and Mickey Mouse, which they just loved.

Throughout the program the children were climbing all over the laps of the GIs themselves and it tugged at my heart to see the expressions on the faces of theGls. Perhaps it being my first Christmas with the GIs I didn't really know what to expect - but it certainly did move me greatly to see their reactions to these underprivileged children.

After the movies were over, the children were brought over to the Aeroclub and seated at the long tables in the snack bar which, incidentally, was very attractively decorated with packages of candy wrapped up in red paper and holly and Christmas greens placed along the tables.

For refreshments we served tea, cakes [cookies] and fruit Jell-O and had planned to have ice cream, but at the last minute the freezing unit broke down. As it was late in the afternoon by this time, we drew the black-out curtains and lighted the candles. At the appropriate moment, Santa Claus came bursting into the room, much to the glee and shouts of the youngsters. One of the GIs acted as our Father Christmas and did an excellent job.

After passing up and down the tables talking to all the children, Father Christmas went up onto the stage where the decorated Christmas tree was standing with piles of presents stacked all around it. These presents were bought by money donated voluntarily by the GIs who had insisted on such a donation. There was a present for each individual child with his or her name on it. Incidentally, this required a great deal of hard work before hand, purchasing 130 presents for the children who had been invited. I say 130 children because that was the original list which had been planned on, but when the children actually arrived, we counted 160 noses.

American Red Cross Christmas
English schoolchildren at Wendling, Norfolk get a close look at 41-29131, Flying Patch K, a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.