I was a Pawcatuck boy. It is a small town in Connecticut, the center of a sandwich, the bread slices being Stonington and the Atlantic Ocean. The town flowed into westerly, Rhode island almost becoming one. I went to school, in Westerly, and was happy to come home and feed the chickens. My family had a typical two story house fitting the geography of an old mill town. I was young, about sixteen, when echoes of war started to reverberate. Europe was on fire but it might have well been on a different planet, as far as I was concerned. My family came from Sicily, a large island off Italy. It is the `rock', that the toe of Italy appears to be kicking. This was the `old country' that they had left by sea, to seek a better life.
It must have been a gutsy move to leave the familiar and forge toward the unknown. Circumstances must have been very terrible, in Sicily, to jump-start a drastic transplanting as this; a complete uprooting. They were part of the great transformation designing the future of Europe and America's coming ethnic diversity.
Antonio Longo, my father, couldn't wait to get the hell out of Sicily. He hated the island but to this day I'm not quite sure of his reason. It probably had to do with the poverty or perhaps the Mafia. I would hear, "it", mentioned in the stillness of night, under his breath. His small village was Tusa, a name I heard, if ever, with a guttural intonation. Dad moved to Genoa as soon as he turned seventeen. After a short time there he booked passage, on a ship, to Argentina with his Uncle Felix. My father became a South American farmer. I'm sure he was no plantation owner but more of a farmhand. Papa raised cattle for beef and with that came the necessity to grow feed crops. He would slap the horses in the rear to get them to pull the plow, to plant cattle feed. I can imagine him kicking cow crap and pulling weeds with strong dirty fingers. He never talked about Italy, it was always, "South America, South America." My father had left Genoa at the young age of seventeen to raise cattle and horses. Italy was as a dark family secret that had to be hidden from prying eyes and ears. And Sicily; it was somewhere lost in the past, in its own forbidden demons of crags, hills and mountains.
Dad was chasing cows and plowing and planting in Argentina until somehow he found, that my mother, the beautiful Francis Lacasio, had left Sicily and had emigrated to Norwich, Connecticut. That was it for him, he was on the next boat to Ellis Island. This sudden move, on his part, leads me to believe that my parents had been an `item' in their homeland. And that's all I'm going to mention about that.
From a large Italian island, in the Mediterranean Ocean, to a lesser one in New York harbor. My parents were part of the teeming masses described in the poem, at the Statue of Liberty. The point of entry and immigration was Ellis island, a manmade pile of dirt and debris and horse dung enriched with very large red brick buildings. It is here that the registration of immigrants became a saga unto itself.
The tales and stories my parents and relatives told me was all I knew about Europe, and all I needed to know. And that wasn't too much. My mother would talk about the "Old Country", and remember it with poignancy and good memories. My father's "Old Country" was a continent. "South America, South America," he would ever repeat. If I ever asked them why they left, to come to America, I was greeted with inaccurate answers. It was a poor land and times were too often difficult. America was the land of great opportunity. That is why they came, but their pride didn't allow this gentle fact to pass their lips. Except once in a while my father would let it escape with an exuberant, "God bless America," softened in an Italian accent marinated in a dialect of tomato paste, olive oil and herb.
There was trouble overseas but it would never affect me. I studied a trade, in high school, and my life was proceeding down its uneventful path. I would do what was expected of me. That is, follow in my father's footsteps and do the best I could. Raise a family, get a job and once in a while, take a day off and travel to the beach. I was young, however life had already begun to settle into a nice nestled package. I was just beginning a part time job and there was one girl I was sweet on. Never did I think that I would become entangled in history. That I would or could be involved in fighting, a world away, was ludicrous. How could I imagine I would soon be fighting for peace and using weapons not yet invented? Huge flying machines capable of carrying heavy bombs, armed to the gills with very efficient machine guns. Little could I visualize how these guns would alter the path I thought I had laid down, for myself.
Plumbing was what my father did for work. He was a short man with huge forearms that always appeared to be coated with grease or a nondescript substance high society never mentions, in mixed company. He was a good father and provider and adored my mother. We had a strong nuclear family and my family instilled strong values in me. Woe to me if I did anything wrong for I would feel the strong gaze, of my father, and a trip to the chicken coop. There I would experience just how strong my father's arms could be. The coop was our substitute for a trip to the woodshed. My father worked hard and very long hours. I remember him leaving, for work, at all hours of the day and night. People were always calling with emergencies. The leaking drain and the dripping faucet interfered with many a family dinner. The winters were particularly interrupted by midnight calls concerning furnace breakdowns. Our `family sit-downs' revolved around cycles of hot and cold.
My mother always would have supper waiting for me, on the table, when I got home. She kept to her schedule and I had the fear of God instilled, in me, if I ever were late. A strong Italian woman more in spirit than in stature. She was petite and ran the household as it was her own domain, which it was. Mom had a job too, it was taking care of the house and us kids. The oldest was our sister Ida then my brothers Francis and Joe. Then came my sister Carmela, my brother Frank, and I was last. Taking care of the six of us was a full time occupation.
Everything was gleaming and as neat as the proverbial pin. And her cooking and baking; you would die to sit at her table. I can still smell the spirits of pasta drifting through the house from Wednesdays and the weekends. The kitchen was always warm and moist, on the coldest of evenings, with aromas and the heat from the oven, and the smile in my mother's eyes.
Mother was like a doctor in our small and cloistered ethic community. She administrated to any and all that would call her night and day and those that tempted the retribution of the professional medical community, by rapping on her door. They would call her if they had a headache or a bunion. From bad breath to genuine sickness they would appeal for her benevolent mysticism and healing touch and knowledge. I remember mom putting bowls of warm water and evil smelling oils together and humming a secret incantation while rubbing this oleo of richness onto a neighbor's forehead, to cure their brain problem or headache.
My mother added a magnetism to her neighborhood. She seemed to attract all friends and characters of a good nature. Poems and songs would be stored in her memory and recited in verse or music to those that I now know were fortunate to hear.
I should have never departed from this Eden, this haven of contentment and hope. I only left, for a short period, and that has made all the difference. A young boy's eyes were forever saddened with the vastness of war.
All the young men were joining. Uncle Sam needed them to fill his dance card. Some were getting drafted, but most in my town and my friends were joining. We began to get swept up in events that had their own inertia, their own life. As an out of control wind storm the world affairs at war blew evil and destruction across the face of Europe. The United States was feeling the breeze of unrest. We were in the throes of internal turmoil. Were we to take part in this foreign conflict or maintain our stance of laissez faire? Something powerful and strong was upsetting the normal balance of Pawcatuck. The standard issues of small town politics were changing. For the first time, in my life, I had to think beyond the boundaries of what was and what was to be. World War I was ended, it was prophesied to be the last war, "the war to end all wars". And still there was a rumbling in the world.
Talk on the street corner was of indifference or of macho bravado. I fit in somewhere here but how my alliance stood, I wasn't sure. Hell, all I wanted was to finish school and start work. Just to be normal in a normal life, in a normal town, in a normal world; that's all I ever desired. How the dark clouds of chaos swirled me into its vortex and consumed my life, with no abject contrition, still bewilders me. I just wanted to get a car. To purchase a new or slightly used shining black sedan, that was my pertinent politics. Right now all I could afford was an old junk.
More and more of the local boys started to disappear. It wasn't if they sneaked away, in the night, one by one; but they were leaving. Not en masse but in small groups, called up by the selective Service Board, the dreaded 'draft'. The first to go was my oldest brother Frank. It caused a mild stir in the community. The country was on alert and it was feeding its appetite for soldiers. Some didn't wait for the 'S.S.S.' to call their number. They merely had to enlist to put an end to their own personal draft notice ever arriving. It gradually became more commonplace as more and more of our youthful population dwindled. The young men and boys were saying their good-byes and were departing for distant training grounds, in unfamiliar places. It wasn't soon after my brother Frank got drafted, into the Army, that my brother Joe was called. He too, was `selected' into the 'service'. Now my parents had two sons in the Army; an Army at war.
I had started work after graduating from school, at Electric Boat. EB was a defense plant in Groton, Connecticut; on the shores of the Thames River. We were constructing diesel submarines in vast quantities. The diesel motors powered generators that charged huge storage batteries. The batteries turned giant electric motors that turned the propellers and that is why the factory was called Electric Boat. It seemed straight forward enough and more importantly, I was learning a trade. I wanted to be a steam fitter. Perhaps I was to follow in the footsteps of my father.
Working in a defense plant would, more than likely, exclude me from the Selective Service's choosing me. I could have hidden under the protective skirt, of the company, but I never thought twice about it. We were at war and it had become personal. My two older brothers were carrying guns in Europe. And so my awakening into manhood began. I wanted to be part of this movement, this transit into adventure and the unknown. Young Bobby was going to board that train that was nom, leaving the station, heading God only knew where.
My boss at Electric Boat was a strict but fair man. I think he was taking me under his wing grooming me for the forty years to come. That was a normal span working there; do your forty and retire. This was the place to work in my area of the State. It was good pay, good benefits and it was a good honest career. I still remember my supervisor's words when I told him I was going to join, that I had made up my mind. He said, "What are you, out of your mind?" He was just another in a long line, that I pissed off, by enlisting. But I know that my Uncle Sam was elated. In fact Sam said, "I want you!"
I didn't wait to get drafted, I wanted into this `thing'. This was adventure, movement and a chance to see what was across the street. I sensed an opportunity. I walked to the local enlistment office and said, "What do I do?" The gentlemen there were more than willing to aid me in my inquiry and before you could say, "Jack Robinson," I had signed a stack of paperwork. I was in the Army Air Corps. This had to be better, by far, than driving around town in a broken down jalopy. I wouldn't even have to pay for my own gasoline which was getting harder to purchase anyhow. Everything was being rationed, due to the War, and gas was right up there on top. Along with butter and sugar, gas was very hard to come by. At the very least I would get some of these in the Army. Yes, in the `service' I would never have to wonder from where my next meal was coming. It wouldn't be as good as my Mother's cooking but it would do. Little did I know I would also be sampling the culinary art of Germany.
Yes, I didn't wait to get drafted. I wanted to join the Army Air Corps. The truth is, I didn't want to be in the infantry. If I waited for the draft, sure as Hell, I would be pounding dirt, with my brothers. I didn't want to walk anywhere, certainly not with a gun. I wanted to be an airplane mechanic. I was good at fixing things and making them purr. Here was a chance to advance my knowledge and stay out of that damn infantry. And here was another way to upset my parents. I didn't intend to but I knew it would break their hearts.
I was sent to Fort Devons, Massachusetts for my basic training. It is the same story that could be told by hundreds of thousands of GI's. It may have been basic training for others but it was all new to me. I was away from home, for the first time, and everything was just as foreign as if the base were in Timbuktu. We were all issued the same clothing, ate the same food, and obeyed the exact same orders. I was selected, inspected, neglected and felt rejected. It was to be a fun time all around, the days turning into weeks and the weeks becoming months. I was always tired. I think that I forgot most of it except for the good times, which were lacking in abundance.
I had never shot a gun. Shotguns were for hunting and I had never done that. Learning to shoot and clean weapons, I soon learned, was to be a huge chunk of my training. Every soldier had to qualify with a rifle. From cook to bookkeeper, to combat foot soldier, all had to learn this weapon. The weapon was the heavy M-nnn rifle; this was our tool. Just as every carpenter uses a hammer the tool of the soldier is his gun. You could never predict when the enemy might attack the mess hall or cause calamity by overrunning the supply depot. At boot camp they made it quite clear that the democratic world would end if the cook didn't obtain a certain proficiency, with his rifle.
I wanted to be an mechanic, in the Army Air Corps. That's one of the reasons I joined. And then I started looking at all those planes landing and taking off. I started to take full notice of their comings and goings and I got hooked. How was I going to fly as a mechanic? I wanted up in the air, not on the ground changing spark plugs and getting oil in my face. Flying would be a nice clean occupation. One that showed promise and adventure. I began to hate the ground and wanted to be as far away, from it, as I could manage.
Soon, I was shipped to Miami, Florida. It was winter and all we got was rain and more rain. I had a great time in Florida. There was a lot happening in Miami at night and I tried hard not to miss any of it. Hell, when it rains you've got to stay inside to keep dry, right? I never found one tavern or bar that had a leak in its roof. I always felt that I had to stay as wet on the inside, as the outside, to keep from warping. I never bent an inch.
It was in Florida when the Master Sergeant took me aside and asked if I wanted to be an Engineer. I wanted to know how I could be an Engineer without ever going to college? He said, "Listen stupid, an Engineer in the Army Air Corps is a gunner on a bomber." Well, right then and there I wanted to be stupid, if that's what it took to get inside one of those planes. I said, "I'm your guy," and with that I was assigned to B-24 school. Just like that, imagine? Just like that I really and fully pissed off my mother and father. My father's letter contained a chastisement which read something like, "Now you've made your mother cry."
B-24 school was in Santa Monica, California. Here I was versed in exactly what a bomber was. It was big and metallic and dropped things from the sky. I thought I knew it all until it was drilled into me that I knew nothing or even less than nothing about the Army Air Corps, and bombers in particular. It was picture books and lectures all day long. Before the Army would let me risk my life inside one of their contraptions they wanted me to know exactly what I was getting my self into. I was-getting myself into a B-24, and it couldn't get more exact than that.
I was not specifically seeing the world but I was sure as hell seeing the USA. The cities were getting larger the farther away I got from home. Home, it seemed so distant and small now. What was the rest of the world going to be like? I wanted to see it all, I wanted to fly around the globe. I was starting to like this Army Air Corps.
From Florida I was shipped to Lincoln, Nebraska. Here I was registered in engineering school. It was mostly lining up and doing paperwork. That was for starters. In the end it was all mechanics and getting oil all over my uniform. It was impossible to keep a clean set of shirt and pants. I was back in high school. I was sure glad I became an engineer.
I had never fired a weapon in my life except the M-1 in boot camp. Therefore the Army Air Corps decided that my specialty would be the machine gun. Of course, this made perfect sense to them. Why bother having to retrain the bad habits of the duck hunter and pigeon slayer when they could start fresh with me? Knowing nothing about this implement of war, I dived right in. I liked the feel and look of the beast. It was loud and boisterous and did what I told it to do. This was my weapon, I felt it. It became an extension of my sight. It could devastate anything I looked upon. I couldn't wait to bring this firing hell, to bare, upon the German Air Force. I would defend my ship and rain bullets upon the winged intruders. I would fly unobstructed, to and fro. I would make mince meat of, 'Der Fuhrer'. A flying warrior, that's what I would be.
I was off again, this time back to Florida. I was stationed in Fort Meyers, Florida enrolled in gunnery school. All those unfulfilled boyhood yearnings, to fire a shotgun, soon came true. It was, "Pull!" Boom! "Mark!" "Pull!" Boom! "Mark!" Over and over, all day long. Day after day, over and over. Planes would come zooming by and I had to shoot at them with a shotgun. I had to learn to lead them. I had to shoot in front of them and above them. The bird shot would never reach the planes but I was always informed that, "If these were machine guns you wouldn't hit nothing, you piece of crap!" The planes came faster and faster and closer and closer, in my dreams. I would awaken to do it all over again. "Pull!" "Mark!" Boom! I thought my damn shoulder was going to fall off. I was sure glad I had become an engineer.
And then there were the AT-6's. These were flying rust-buckets that served as training platforms. We gunners would be flown over the Gulf of Mexico to shoot down the enemy ocean. I would shoot long trailing arcs into the Gulf to see what it felt like, to view the firepower of a fifty caliber weapon. It fell good after my first three or four times of flying fear. I had a hotshot sadistic pilot that thought his job was to scare the crap out of me. Well, it worked. The first time I was up in that crate I think, no I am sure, he tried to flip it over and make it crash and burn. It was all there except for the crashing and burning part. When I wasn't clinging on for life I made some nice etchings, on the water's surface. They were nice splattering bursts that always led and downed my imaginary Messerschmitt. Regrettably, I couldn't swivel the gun far enough to hit my pilot's position.
Then it was off to Topeka, Kansas. Now, it was really starting to get interesting. This is where we formed our base bomber crew. This was the core of the crew that would stick together in thin and thick. I was assigned to my officers here. The tall Lieutenant Gerald Rogers and the diminutive Second Lieutenant Fred Kane were all mine. It was usually all business with the officers. It was a simple, "lust do your job and we'll all get along fine." Rogers was like a father figure; after all he was an old man. He had to be at least twenty eight and I was all of nineteen. Kane looked after me too but he was a lot younger than Rogers. Kane was about twenty four. He would always help me finish the bottle of Canadian Club whisky, I had, because I couldn't. Kane was like a go between even though he was an officer. I was note,, flying as part of a crew, part of a warship. It was mostly takeoff and land with the odd bit of flying, in circles, to add spice. Our future movements within the country and to other destinations, on our way to Europe, would be training enough for long distance flying and navigation.
Coming out of my barracks, in Topeka, I was spotted by a Captain. He must have been looking real close, or had a bug up his ass, since he noticed that my shoelaces were untied. I was only going to breakfast. Often, I would have my shoes untied. I only had to take them off as soon as I got to the plane. I would remove them and put on my large insulated flight boots. Well, the Captain thought I was `out of uniform'. He insulted me and threatened me, up and down. He promised me a week on KP and then he wanted me to think he was a great guy for not giving it to me. This guy was trying to make chicken salad out of chicken crap. Then he wanted to give it to me again. He would have been doing me a favor. Instead of flying in an aluminum can, over Germany, I could have been sitting on my rear end peeling spuds. I now know how ironic this thought would become.
Salt Lake City was our next landing field and station. There wasn't much night-life there because of the Mormon influence. The Air Corps tried to further persuade us not to venture into the city. They instigated a type of blackmail. I can recall the offer exactly, "If you want to go out, you have to buy a Savings Bond." I purchased a mitt full.
It was on the Salt Lake air base that they had slot machines. They were trying everything to keep us `home'. I didn't care for those one-armed-bandits but Earl Lawson did. He would have been content to spend his whole military career in front of one. We had to drag him away from them. Perhaps he was the smart one realizing it was a safe place to reside during a war?
And then we were off again. I never thought I would like Boise, Idaho. How could I? I had never heard of it. What a beautiful place, a simply gorgeous city in September. And it was here that we picked up Technical Sergeant Robert McCalicher. Mac and I hit it right off the bat. We were both young sergeants in a new city. We had a hell of a time. We used to get stewed every night. We both pulled KP duty one evening. We couldn't believe it, we were Sergeants. We worked in the mess hall and that night our luck got better. We had huge steaks for dinner. I had a couple and couldn't believe my good fortune. Where could the Army get tasty beef as this? I asked Mac what he thought of his and he gave me a one word answer, "Horse." "Horsemeat" was stamped in bold black lettering on one side of the crates it had come in. The Army was probably doing away with their mules left over from World War I.
The next fantastic place was West Palm Beach, Florida. We were working our way east and we were hitting all the beautiful places for a young man. The stories of this town would make a separate chapter in any book. In the Bible it would be mentioned in the chapter containing the Ten Commandments.
The real long distance flying then started in earnest. We took off nonstop to Trinidad. From there we went to Brazil. From Brazil to Africa and then a return to Trinidad. I'm still disappointed that I never got stationed in California. I guess I almost made it around the block.
Fun and games were over. We left Trinidad for Great Britain where our home base was to be in England. It was a convenient stepping stone across the English Channel into France and Germany. From now on, it was going to be an `away game'. I was part of the visiting team.
I was the left waist gunner or the 2nd Engineer on the B-24 nicknamed The Bad Penny. I'll always remember the nose art on our plane, it was never completed. All she had on the nose was The Bad. Just this big picture of a one cent piece, the backside, with The Bad above it. She must have been new or they were in a rush because they only got as far as painting half of her name, on the nose. The boys never got a chance to finish the name. They never got to put a wet paintbrush to the word Penny. Now, as I look back I guess the artists had other things to do besides drawing a picture, of a giant coin, on the nose of a heavy bomber. Not that there was anything more important to us, at the time, but they probably had a thousand things to do, just to keep us in the air. They fed and groomed the horses, we took them out for rides. I had ten missions with The Bad Penny. That's what they told me but I only remember nine. Somehow they called some shakedown flight a mission. I suppose it would have been if we crashed on takeoff. The takeoff always frightened me. Our vehicle was a melange of wires, bombs, the smell of aviation fuel and oil, all mixed together to form an exquisitely dangerous amalgam into a potential fiery explosion. All this ending in a cremation blaze with me as guest of honor. We were banged around and vibrated so much it was as if we were in a paint can shaker, except it was more cramped. I always had my chute, but you can't bail out, if something goes wrong, at twenty-five feet. I just wanted to get far above the Earth where I hoped the Germans couldn't find us.
Once the B-24 gained altitude and was firmly positioned above the clouds, hopefully there were clouds and there usually were, it was the most intense feeling in the world. I was a small town boy that rode trains; once in a while I got a ride in an automobile. Yet here I was miles above the earth within the most modern machine ever built, with a view that would make anyone jealous. What did I care now, if the plane crashed or if the Germans knew that Bobby Longo was on his way, to hand deliver a message to Adolf Hitler himself? I was young, I was the best of the best, I wanted to end this war. But in the meantime, the joys of being part of this history, this sky, this optimism of righteousness and innocence! We were angels with ack-ack proof wings.
I was part of a crew of ten that operated as a single entity. We were all young each having his own line of expertise. We were from many different backgrounds, coming from many thumbtacks, on the map. And we all came together, as one unit, in a flying boxcar sixty-three feet long. This is their story and mine. We were all minor characters combining in a major plot: A theme of war.
The ten of us were a motley bunch, in our backgrounds and origins, but we all functioned conjointly like an eight day clock. Such is the canvas of war; many people from varied destinies coming together, to paint an epic scenario. A canvas to out last the tribulations of man's peaceful achievements.
Second Lieutenant Gerald E. Rogers
Pilot from Hayward, California. We knew him as Buck Rogers, a name we took from the movies and the comic strips; a science fiction spaceship jockey. He was our mentor in rank and in leadership.
Second Lieutenant Richard E. Weir
Copilot, from Worcester, Massachusetts. Naturally, we knew him as Dick.
Second Lieutenant Jack A. Roper
Our Navigator from the Big Apple; New York, N. Y.
Second Lieutenant Fred J. Kane
Bombardier out of Wichita, Kansas. Fred went by the appellation Killer Kane.
Technical Sergeant Robert L. McCalicher
Top Turret Gunner hailing from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. One of three Bobby's we had on board, so he went by the name Mac. His expertise was well known as First Engineer.
Technical Sergeant Earl J. Lawson
Radio Operator, from Hobbs, New Mexico.
Staff Sergeant Robert J. Longo
The Right Waist Gunner from Pawcatuck, in the great State of Connecticut. That's me, but early on they started to call me Smlley. I don't know if it was really because I smiled a lot, or whether it was just because we had too many Robert's on board. I was the second Engineer.
Staff Sergeant Robert W. Danford
Our third Bobby. He was our Ball Turret Gunner, reared in Detroit, Michigan.
Staff Sergeant Harold L. Andrews
The Left Waist Gunner. He joined the Army Air Corps in Akron, Colorado.
Staff Sergeant Edward J Gienko
Brought up the rear as our Tail Gunner. Ed grew up in Chicago, Illinois.
I clearly remember our first mission. The other gunners and the bombardier thought we had over flown our target. I didn't know one way or the other. They, on the other hand, were very correct. Jack Roper, our navigator, kept repeating, "We just passed the target, where the hell are we going? Where the hell are we going?"
We had flown right over and past Germany and exited on the other side, over Switzerland. Of course, no one knew that very important detail, at that time, except Jack Roper and others that somehow knew better. Our plane had to follow the lead plane which was coordinating the bomb drop. We had no choice but to follow and obey its directives. Perhaps Roper was in err and needed more navigational practice, after all this was his first bombing run. Our command plane let us know that our `primary' was in sight. It was a fairly large city North of the Rhine River. We were to destroy the chemical works in Ludwigshafen, Germany. Unfortunately, we scored direct hits upon the neutral Swiss town of Schaffhausen. It was April Fool's Day, 1944. There was no resistance.
We did a milk run over France one morning. Any flight over France was a piece of cake compared to the stuff they threw at us, over the `fatherland', on the way to Berlin. The Americans always flew during daylight and the British bomber, the Lancaster, bombed at night under the cover of darkness. I didn't have much to do with politics or understand them but I figured we got hold of a short straw somewhere. Maybe someone decided since we had more planes and men we wouldn't miss them as much. Well, on our way to France we lost three engines. They just stopped running and there we were coasting along on only one, as forlorn as a clam during low tide. The plane was going down, down, and down. The ground was swimming up to meet us and all our engines were feathering except for one. Lt. Weir looked aghast and started calling, "Mac, Mac the en gines have stopped!" We knew that, Mac knew this and the whole freaking bomber group knew this. Mac hopped to the switches and banged and `threw' them in correct order, with out a thought. Mac was a real smart kid even though this was pure training and instinct. The engines burped and coughed and tilted the bomber, almost on its side, as they burst into animation. I was almost knocked off my feet as The Bad Penny straightened and ascended heavenward. Lt. Weir really had pulled a boner. He had been transferring the fuel from the auxiliary tanks into the main tanks. This had to be done to balance the plane and to keep the engines from becoming fuel starved. In Weir's presumptuous wisdom he had `merely' forgotten to turn off the fuel pumps. The booster pumps kept on humming long after the auxiliary tanks had been sucked dry. They were sucking so hard on the empty tanks that they caused vapor lock in the fuel lines, to three of our four engines. If it had not been for that one engine and for Mac, the Germans would have been raking dirt and leaves out of the wreckage of The Bad Penny.
Lt. Weir was always pulling some half baked stunt like that. It wasn't a practical joke or a stupid mistake, he was just absent minded. But we were flying The Bad Penny so we thought nothing of it. Mac threw a couple of switches and everything was just as if it had never occurred. Nothing could happen, to us, with her. Mac made up for it more than once. When something really went wrong he somehow put in a quick fix with a wrench and some torque. Buck Rogers liked him sitting in the front, just in case.
Our B-24's often flew with the B-17s. Those things were beautiful in the air. With great swooping wings they looked like huge gliders. I especially like to watch them takeoff. They would hit the end of the runway and start a slow rolling climb. If there were no fog the early morning sunlight would reflect off their huge wing area. I would watch them gracefully turn as they headed to get their feet wet, over the `Channel'. It looked like those babies could fly themselves they appeared so effortless in lift off and flight. I heard lots of stories about the B-17s. We heard a lot of `true' tales during the War. I even knew a guy, who knew another guy, that actually talked to the guy, that fell to Earth, inside the floating tail of one. It had been sheared off by flak or by a collision with another B-17 and it just floated down, feather like, with him safely tucked inside. He didn't even get scratched. We all hoped for a break as his if we `got it' and we all wanted to shake his hand for luck. I never did.
Those B-17's could take a hell of a beating and keep flying. They could return to base on one engine and with both wings shot off. Maybe they could do it with no propellers, too? They were magic but they were relatively slow. On one mission we passed their flight on our return to base. We had left at the same time. We were faster but we couldn't take a hit to save our rear. The B-24 was a flying egg shell. The B17's had to be durable because the German's knew they were coming. After all, we had just dropped our bombs on the B-17's destination and had telegraphed the German gunners that the B-17's would be on their way. It was always tough to fool the Krauts twice in one afternoon.
The longest mission I ever flew was nine hours. That wasn't too bad when you realize that two of those hours were just to get into formation. Not that it wasn't still a long, time but at least we didn't fly beyond Germany, again. We flew out of King's Lynn, England. This town is in Norfolk, a county in eastern England bordering the North Sea on the east and the north. It made a perfect point to disembark for a flight over the English Channel; the doorway to France and Germany. We could fly across the Channel, continue over France and then onto Germany. In better times I would have brought a picnic basket.
I used to really sweat the takeoff from England. It was usually foggy, and if it wasn't it was raining. We were a lumbering toad filled with fuel and bombs. One time it was pouring cats and dogs as we lifted off. I couldn't see the end of the runway it was so thick with the nastiness of it all. And there it was, a B-24 coming straight for us. It was coming in for a landing as we were getting aloft. We were going to be a causality of a friendly landing. We missed each other by only feet and to this day I can't remember if we went under it, or it went under us. I do know it would have been quite a mess. We were both doing about one hundred and fifty miles per hour. And if I add that up correctly we would have encountered each other at a combined speed of exactly three hundred miles per hour.
Buck Rogers was always chumming around with Killer Kane. That was the way it had to be. They were officers and most of us were enlisted men. It had to be such, so the chain of command would stay somewhat intact. Many nights, however, Killer would be with us as a friend and as a companion. We would hit all the clubs, bars, and cafes and have ourselves a grand old time. Buck Rogers was a regular guy, after all, and he often would accompany Kane. Therefore he would be in `our' party as well and we got to know him as a real nice guy, although quite old. Buck was twenty-seven years of age.
We were a crew first and in the air acted as a team. We would sacrifice for one another. Later we were to find out to what extreme some men will travel, to achieve this self sacrifice. Kane and Rogers had a lot in common. They were gentlemen first and officers second.
Weir stuck to himself because that's the way he was, a loner by trade. He would go off alone and return alone. His comings and goings were gauges of his solitary independence. Maybe he was a hermit or a lighthouse keeper in his previous life? Roper was a different case. He was alone because he was Jewish. He joined to fight the Germans; the Germans that were killing and oppressing his religion and people. It was sad to see this self exiled man alone in his pondering. That's the way I felt about him. He was one hell of a nice guy that merely remained a loner. Perhaps some of the others were anti-Semitic, I don't know, but I strongly doubt it. If that were the case, now looking back, it was a damn shame.
Mac and I were inseparable. We had a shared bond, we were much alike. We were both sergeants and gunners. Young, crazy and out for adventure, we were the fly-boys let loose on the darkened English countryside. With `borrowed' bicycles we would peddle to the nearest town, seven miles distant. Naturally, we were off to see the pubs and the women. Of ten, we were successful in our journey. After getting `tanked up' at the pubs we would be in good spirits riding back, to the base. Those English bikes would never steer in a straight line. We would peddle with our small generator lights softly glowing from the handlebars. Away from Germany and inland from the fearsome coast we seemed to run into every Bobbie. Those cops would chase after us screaming, "Out with the lights, out with the lights!" As if the German heavy bombers could see our tiny lamps from five miles aloft.
Danforth would follow us two everywhere we traipsed. He was the third wheel looking for an axle and since there was none he became our spare. He was no trouble at all, he was just a constant pain. As soon as we got to a pub Danforth would lean back on his stool and pass out. His chin would be pointed at the ceiling and his legs would be outstretched and splayed. I would only see a diminutive body full of snores and nose hairs. We'd leave for another bar and magically he would awaken, follow us, and then proceed to pass out again, with more acute velocity. He couldn't do anything by himself. Danforth always had to tag along. What a pain in the rear. After all was said and done, however, I think I really liked the little guy.
Mac and I got ourselves two dates, one girl each, for the evening of April 29th. We were on cloud nine without our bomber. It was going to be a good time. `My' girl's father owned his own pub. All that was left was for us to get a date for Danforth. We couldn't forget about him. Nothing could deter our plan, it would be a great night. About two years later, I ran into Mac, in my travels. The first thing I asked him was, "Do you think the girls are still waiting for us after the way we stood them up?" Yes, it was a very special date. Not the date with the girls but rather April 29th
I thought the English quite clever and full of wit. Their favorite expression was, "we shall fight the Germans to the last Yank." They were only being self deprecating, for they had been in this War longer then we and they had witnessed their country and cities bombed with much loss of life and property. I don't think I could have taken it if my home town and friends and families were under bomber attacks, day and night. Perhaps this was one of the reasons we were in this War. We didn't want this to happen to us.
Takeoff was a thing of joy. After watching the engines and propellers spin for about thirty minutes, to warm up, I would strap myself onto a long bench sitting backwards, to our direction of travel. I would be sitting near the slot into which the ball dropped. Actually, the top of that silvery orb could be seen as a dormant hemisphere impatiently awaiting its future tenant to descend into the cramped innards. From my roost I could watch the tarmac racing underneath the plane's belly, becoming a swirling blur. The noise was more than deafening and speech would, from now on, be a shout unless the intercom was used. This was a flying metallic can. The sheet metal groaned, and cracked, and vibrated, and shook. It was like flying in a sieve. The wind would blow through the open slots, gaps, and hatches in great unabated gales. When it rained the entire aircraft was flooded and we splashed among the puddles. This was never meant to be a comfort cruise, not for us and not for those on the receiving end, of our intentions.
As soon as the bomber darted skyward, scribing a steep angle, we would unbuckle and scamper to our positions. All except the creature that sometimes resided in the ball. There was little desire to climb into this claustrophobic lair until the last moment. Not until we were nearing the enemy did the ball go down. Just forward of the waist the ball was attached to an arm, that would lower it, through the opening in the sheet metal and into the airflow. Strewn around the interior, in the guise of bright yellow canisters, were ovate bottles of compressed oxygen. They were almost two feet long and adhered tightly to the walls and ceiling like the egg pods of a gigantic insect which had attached them there, With its saliva and mucus. One was affixed to the ball and gave it the aspect of complete isolation; a singular loneliness.
We all knew the poem almost by heart. It became clearer in the pubs at night after hoisting back a few. It was written by a Celestial Navigator that knew what living terror inside the ball existed. He had seen what the exploding shells of fighter cannons could do to the body encased in the revolving sphere of plexiglas. Only too well did he know the horror of removing body parts with a steam hose.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
There were crawl spaces and catwalks from one end of the plane to the other. From the waist, one went rearward into the constriction of the tail. Here, two machine guns were governed by Ed Gienko. Alone and desperate in his hermitage he protruded into the ether, protecting our stern.
Just forward of the ball was the Top Turret gun. It was a bubble that afforded an excellent panoramic view of clouds, and Messerschmitts, and such. So vulnerable to enemy eyes, once inside, it seemed as though there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. In this situation the feeling was correct. You could look down and see the whole sweep of the top side, of the bomber. Your head was stuck up and ready to be chopped off. What a view. What a place to be when the Messerschmitts came to admire the bomber's sleek lines.
At least the waist gunners had company in their positions. The two fifty caliber machine guns extended so far into the midsection that the pair of gunners, directly across from one another, were giving each other back rubs. From window to window was just a bit over five feet. Put a brace of guns and two bodies in that space and one or more of the Law's of Physics become violated.
Climbing a four feet ledge forward of the ball brought one into the bomb bay. Here hanging in four racks was what our mission was all about. A narrow catwalk went like a straightedge between the clusters. It was so tight in there that you couldn't walk through without brushing into the bombs on either side. One misstep and you would put your weight upon the bomb bay doors. These could not support extra mass and it would be a free ride to the ground. They were proposed as such, to give quick exit in case of an emergency. It was chivalrous in the manner the aeronautical engineers were always `concerned' about our well being. The bombardier would have to manually arm each bomb, once near the target, by pulling the pin from each bomb's nose. The only way to do this was by hanging onto the bomb racks and on the bombs themselves. All this amid the noise, the gusts of wind, and the vibration of choreographed movement.
The bomb area was a round tube with the sides a mishmash of cables running fore and aft. Many lines of hydraulic tubing were bent to follow the lands and grooves that made up the walls. There were brake lines, control lines, hydraulic lines, and a spaghetti of colored wiring. I did know that we would be in big trouble if flak or bullets were to sever any of this ubiquitous piping. The plane was just a hollow tube with aluminum ribs holding it sacrosanct. Take a thin tube and drop a floor into it, hammer on a couple of wings, put a tail on its rear; and that was a B-24. A flying eggshell, that's all it was. We were all together in a flying eggshell.
Forward of this area was the small navigator's compartment. He shared this space with the radioman. There were two insignificant desk tops in this compartment. Not more than a couple of square feet, they served as the only flat surfaces on which to place maps and a radio log. These crew members also had access to guns. There were only two positions without weapons at the ready. They were the pilot and the copilot. We had to have someone fly the machine.
From the radio room it was a short upward step into the cockpit. It was important that communication not be interrupted between the pilots and the navigation team. if the intercom went SNAFU, extremely loud shouts would get the vital information exchanged. The cockpit contained two control wheels and jumbles of instruments, and switches, and dials.
There were gauges everywhere. I didn't know what they all were but I feared that each one was critical to maintaining our safety and lives.
Underneath the cockpit, disappearing in front of the radio room was a crawl space from Hell. It was a dark thin tunnel that went to the right side of the front wheel. After takeoff the nose wheel was sequestered, into this space, to reduce air resistance and drag. A catwalk went to the right of it and into the nose gun area. Two machine guns vied for space along with the Nordon Bomb Sight. Killer Kane could shoot at airplanes or search for the target, whichever seemed the most feasible, at the moment. Kane had to have some way out, an escape route if things got rough and this was it. The wheel well was the way out. Next to the one foot wide, if that, catwalk was a thin layer of sheet metal that covered the wheel. One misstep and it was another free ride earthward. A quick step into the sky, intentionally or not.
`Formation', that was the worst, for me, next to takeoff. Line up, line up, line up and then wait to get into line again! Line up standing next to The Bad Penny and then line up once we were in the plane. Call the roll by position and then have the B-24 line up on the runway. Line up in taxi formation and line up to takeoff but first sit on the ground lined up for an hour or more. Even longer if there was fog and there always was. Takeoff in a line and then please climb, please climb fast and true and high. Stay clear of each other until we are all well aloft and then begin to line up. Line up, get into formation, get in tight and line up. It reminded me of the Western movies where the cattle were all rounded up until they were ready to head down the trail. And that's what we were doing only just a little higher. We were getting ready to head down the trail and go to town. And boy did we go to town. We flew to hamlets all over Germany trying to destroy them and erase them from the face of Europe.
Some good thinkers say the temperatures got down to minus thirty degrees. The experts say that. Well, I'll tell you right now that I've seen it down to fifty below zero and it felt like sixty below. My hands hurt still, every so often. it's because of the German frost bite. The worst kind in the world. German World War II frost bite. It is a cold so thick it turns your blood to sludge. It is a dry unfettered chill that creeps up your spine and attacks the base of your skull. Words freeze in mid sentence and cling like snowflakes inside your oxygen mask. if I didn't keep hitting the side of my mask it would clog with ice and I would pass out, losing consciousness, and die, solidifying in a fetal position. My open mouth would show my last gasp for oxygen before congealing into that benign position.
My flight suit was wired for heat and that was fine. I just could never keep my hands warm. If I touched my guns, with bare flesh, it would be the same as sticking my tongue to a railroad track, in subzero weather. I couldn't wear mittens because I had to pull the trigger. Often, my goggles would fog over and then the inside would get caked with ice. I couldn't see a damn thing. So I had to take them off which exposed my face to the bitter cold. Everything acts differently in those temperatures. Breath freezes in mid air and gets blown away inside the wind tunnel called a B-24. It wasn't air tight at all. At two hundred miles per hour and at that height I might as well have been standing in front of an open window. As it was, I was standing next to one and it was wide open. Rubber freezes and sometimes cracks, leather gets stiff and stiffer. The whole inside of The Bad Penny took on a painted coating of light frost. We always flew during daylight so the whole cabin shown like glass and sparkles. It was a gorgeous sight but if I were to remember anything it is still the brutal, bitter, unfriendly, lifeless cold. 'It was a German winter in the sky.
The Bad Penny was always giving us some type of trouble, all right. It seems she was ready to drop an engine or refuse to start just out of spite or on a whim. So not surprisingly before my eleventh mission, early in the morning, they told us we had to take up a different B-24. They replaced The Bad Penny moments before the briefing. Instead of a plane with the artwork half done we get a bomber with two gorgeous girls on the nose. We didn't mind the artistry, it was beautiful. I'll always remember the nose art on that ship, the boys did a fantastic job. No plane had two better looking girls on the nose. They were almost naked. They were knockouts. Those boys could be real artists in real life. They could return to being civilians and hang pictures in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and I don't mean as carpenters.
I should have known it was going to be a lousy day. Before that mission, even at the briefing I remember that no one spoke to one another. This was the first time this happened. I knew that was bad luck. I guess we all knew something was going to happen. And that's when I knew we were in 'dutch'. It was one genuine real bad omen. I knew we were in for it. If air crews were awarded medals for superstition our crew would have, on this morning, been awarded the highest honor. The crew didn't even say, "Good morning," to each other at breakfast. Our `standard breakfast' of powdered eggs, powdered coffee, powdered milk and powdered juice. The only thing that wasn't powdered was the sugar, and that was cubed. That was good because if it were powdered it would have made a mess, in the pocket, of my flight jacket. I always slashed a handful for the flight. The bacon looked real but there wasn't too much of it and what we got was overcooked. We just stared into our trays on those long tables, in the mess. The only noise was the metal forks rubbing against the aluminum dishes and the soft swirling of spoons after crushing sugar cubes, into the coffee. We must have known something crazy was going to happen. We were righteously pissed off to get on that plane. And the Double Trouble was nothing but trouble incarnate, from the start. She more than overly lived up to her name, that day. And what a day that was!
After breakfast our crew, along with the other crews in our bomber group, assembled in the briefing Quonset hut. I always felt a little bit homesick when I was in that hut since they were constructed only a few miles from my home in Quonset, Rhode Island. And here we were, this was what it was all about, how we could end this conflict. We were given weather reports, flight times, target information, hospital and civilian locations to avoid, and the purpose of our bomb run. How our bombers could shorten this War, how we had nothing personal against the stone, glass, steel, brick and concrete objects of our intent. We had something personal against Hitler and the Nazis and this destruction was how to get to them. Here we could harm him and cripple his industry, face to face. This was how I could get a piece of him. This was the closest I could ever get to going one on one with the author of all this chaos. And then, there was always a `then', came the most informative and most attended to part of our briefing. We were well informed of our target's defense. All the ack-ack (anti-aircraft fire) that was sure to be shooting skyward towards us. We were really going to get our noses rubbed in it, this time. Black bursts rife with shards of shrapnel, to tear our wings off, and blow holes into our world. Even distant misses brought concussions in noise and tremors that would knock us off our feet. Thump, thump, boom, whoomp, whoomp, and then the smell of gunpowder and black clouds, whisking by us; above and below and sometimes engulfing us. But there was more and it was that `more' that really worried me.
That `more' was the Messerschmitts; the 109's and 190's. They were the most feared participants, in this flying circus They were the wolves in the sky hunting us in packs. They would pounce upon us from any direction, any altitude, and from any point of the compass. They were faster than we and more maneuverable. I had to keep my eyes peeled and staring into the sun. I was looking for that small dark point heading for me, at over 400 miles per hour. That pin point of black would immediately grow into a figure of wing and prop. They favored coming at us, out of the sun, because we couldn't pick them up until it was often too late. They could fly between us and through our formation, and get off a few bursts, before we could spin our guns around. The fighters would appear for a few seconds, strafe us, and be gone in a metallic flash of propeller and tail section. Like mosquitoes we heard their buzzing but could never quite put a slap upon them. We flew in tight formation to offer each other concentrated fire power and perhaps to give moral support; although that never stopped a cannon round, from a Me 109. They were to be feared with much respect and trepidation. Those young German fighter pilots were the `arrogance' that gave spirit to the German Luftwaffe: And they were all trying to earn their Iron Crosses; often, I felt, at my expense. Why not personalize this War? Weren't they trying to kill me? Today would be a chance to even the score. It was a good day to fly but we were in the wrong plane. However today, I knew, would be a day with much opportunity to test my fighter vision. Today our target was the dark heart of Germany. Today our destination was the lair of the beast. Today we were to dare the defenses, of Berlin.
Still, we didn't speak to one another as we exited the rounded tubular dome, of the Quonset Hut. Two open jeeps idled, ready to take our crew across the tarmac, to Double Trouble. We crowded into them, on them and hanging off the sides of them. I found my place sitting on the front right fender. After a short ride, long enough for half a smoke, there she stood; standing on three points, being fueled to make her jump into Germany. There was a light ground fog stabbed by morning rays of sunlight and wispy clouds at about ten thousand feet. A perfect day for a jaunt around Europe.
We dismounted and still without a word began to climb aboard the olive drab green B-24. Even on tip toes I could not reach the open hatch. So with a small hop I grabbed the cross bar, inside the door, and hauled myself inside with an upside down movement. She smelled differently than The Bad Penny and the interior was slightly foreign but still recognizable. I positioned myself, in the waist, and began my check list. It was essentially, "Do I have a machine gun, do I have ammunition, and do I have my parachute?" These items in order, I made sure my heated flight suit worked. I plugged it in and could feel the heat starting to build, just like it was an electric blanket. I was equipped but still I had doubts about this alien bomber.
One after each other the four engines popped, blew a belch of blue smoke and started to roar their disapproval, in the cool morning air. They had to be nursed, at an even speed, to reach operating temperature. The noise and reverberation coming from each wing increased through the ship and my bones with each increment of rpm. `Pulsation' would be a good word to describe the strobe like effect the engines had upon their aircraft. They were getting ready for their leap into the heavens. It was only our Pilot, Lieutenant Gerry Rogers, who held them in check.
Lieutenant Buck Rogers must have gotten the green ball because soon we were racing along the runway, heading into the wind. The crew was tossed back and forth and side to side just like a perfect martini. Usually, I would be sitting, facing backwards, on a bench just in front of the ball. Today I was hanging on to my gun and strapped into the top rail with my harness. The clamor became deafening when with a roar Double Trouble jumped into the air. After one big tilt and an, "Oh, my God!" we straightened and headed upward. We climbed higher and higher until we reached our altitude, of rendezvous; ten thousand feet in just over six minutes. There we circled the wagons until all in our flight were accounted for and then we began checking our systems. We checked the radio and we tested the intercom. We tested the compass and the Nordon Bomb Sight. We double and even triple checked all the instruments and equipment since the Double Trouble was unfamiliar to us. It took us quite a while to get into formation, as usual, and after a final weather report we were away to the German capital.
The fruit of all our labour was about to become a finely tuned group effort. This was it! This was it again! As long as I still live, the mixed feelings I had are ineffable and defy description. They remain nameless even to those of us that might share a brother hood linked in flying combat.
The adrenaline had started to subside and my anxiety was beginning to ebb. Through experience I knew that this would be a short lived respite. The pounding and throbbing of my blood pressure and the hot red liquid coursing through my veins would return with amplified figures. The cycle would repeat and peak as the camouflaged B-24 flew closer and nearer to its preordained victims. The enemy below and amidst us would return and prescribe an even more toxic dose of adrenaline. Yes, this was truly it again! We were circling the drain.
During the mission we kept having engine problems. I think it was the number three engine that finally crapped out. This was the beginning of a bad dream, turning into a possibility of reality. We were now different than the rest of the flight. We became what the Luftwaffe sought, a bomber that stood out from the rest. We were alone, we might as well have dragged a banner through the sky screaming, "Come get us, we're slowing down!". We kept lagging and falling back and back. The remainder of the formation, disappeared ahead as they must, as we knew they must, and left us apart in the midday sky. We were sitting ducks for the German fighters. They would be out there, we knew that. Out there somewhere, anywhere, ready to blind side us and punish us for trespassing, over their land. They would pick us off as the stragglers we had become. We get a ship called the Double Trouble, at the last minute, because something was wrong with one of the engines, on The Bad Penny. And we end up inside a bad luck bird with a dead wing. We could only sweat and wait. Wait for our prayers to be answered. Or perhaps God would be listening in German, this noon?
Buck Rogers was busy fighting the controls of this alien bomber. They all looked alike, except for the nose art and identifying dents and dings. And then there was always the ubiquitous odd pieces of metal welded and riveted to cover bullet holes and gapping wounds from some previous foray. They all were different inside, however. The heart and soul were unique to each aircraft. But to Rogers all this was distilled into one problem. The Double Trouble didn't handle like our Penny. And Rogers was learning how to fly this baby, right now. It was 'on the job training' as I watched him learning the quirks of this bird.
Copilot Dick Weir abetted Rogers in these lessons. He couldn't help himself, he was getting an education also. Rogers would give a command and Weir would parrot him. Rogers would give an order and Weir would echo. Rogers would ask Weir to go over the flight checklist again and again, and Weir would answer again and again. The one unanswered question because Rogers never asked it was, "You know you have to fly this thing if I get killed, don't you?"
Gienko hanged his `Government Issue' flak jacket like a curtain. It was heavy and bulky and hard to negotiate any real movement in it. The Tail Gunner had a tiny area in which to squeeze and once there, he rubbed shoulders with the sides. Ed would immediately remove the flak jacket once he got into his gun area comfortably sequestered. He would hang it as a shield and settle in, for the flight. He would hide behind that vest pretending it could stop machine gun bullets when he was actually trying to keep the War out. Gienko would peek over the top of this arrangement hoping never to find anything. We all thought it humorous but I secretly envied his flak proof religion. Gienko was nesting.
Bobby McCalicher was in the Top Turret today. It was my position. It was my location to view the passing German countryside and the odd fighter, here and there. A last minute decision by Buck Rogers placed me in the Right Armored Gun Position. Mac was supposed to be the Right Waist Gunner today until Buck decided he wanted a 1st Engineer up front.
The 1st Engineer can fix things. He can work on hydraulics, in the air, or mend fuel pumps. Booster pumps were no mystery to him. Mac could hit an altimeter with a hammer as good as anyone. Many times, Mac and I would get to the field early, to warm up the engines for the Pilots. He was a flying mechanic and the sky was his garage. Mac would be in front and that one act of chance put him in harm's way.
On this fateful day Danford got to ride in the ball. He was really a smart guy, except he wasn't smart enough to get rid of his English girlfriend's photos, after he got married. He caught hell, from his bride, for that one.
Harold Andrews was flying this today as our Left Armored Gunner. It was a position behind the two waist Gunners with a view to protecting our flank. His guns were larger than the others and afforded him a more panoramic sweep. He was a quiet guy. Most of the time we never knew he was in the plane. And on the ground he said even less.
Lawson was fiddling around with his radio and wires and juggling vacuum tubes, in his head. There wasn't much for him to do but stay alive, as we were maintaining radio silence. Earl had just better be ready if anything were to go haywire with the intercom. This was the only means of communication, amongst us, in this loud flying kettle drum. Without internal communication we could not tell each other our situations as far as flight and mechanical information. More importantly, I wanted someone to tell me what was in my blind spot when the Jerry's came to call.
Killer Kane could be seen hunched over the bomb sight. He had to make sure everything was operating with precise perfection. The entire crew's reason for existence was to get Killer over the drop zone. A bomber would be just another airplane if we couldn't hit anything. Nearing a target he would take aim and guide the B-24 on its flight path. With deft movements and tender twirls and spins he would proportion the controls, of the bomb sight, and adjust for altitude, wind and speed. Peering downward he would peruse the contours and buildings and attempt to drop all `his' eggs, into one basket. And from this elevation that basket was awfully shy in its presentation.
Killer also had some guns with him. His office was in the beak of the plane, forward and under the Pilot's position. When not bombing the crap out of some town he was in charge of the machine guns, in the nose. Killer could even steer the bomber once it was near its target. To me he looked like a duck sitting there. Just a sitting duck waiting for something bad to happen.
Assisting Killer in our search for Germany's stash of munitions and factories was Jack Roper. As Navigator, he had to let Killer and Buck Rogers know just where the hell we were, at all times. He had to get us close to the target, in order for Killer, to survey the patchwork quit beneath us. Cloistered within the front wheel well he set up his shop. Jack used compasses and radio beacons, and air speed indicators, and slide rulers, and dividers, and other paraphernalia that were, `Who knows what'? He had a metal table top piled high with layers of maps. Next to these were mounds of weather charts. Probably, the single best reason for having the radio was to get updated weather intelligence. The Double Trouble had to be somewhere, and we had to know where 'somewhere' was. When Roper was done with all this math and science, and mirrors and smoke, he took a stab at it. If it weren't for Jack and others like him, I would have never seen Switzerland.
Harold Andrews was bumping me on the other side of the hall. He was the Left Waist Gunner for this foray. He did the same thing I did except out the other window. Harold got to aim left, I got to aim right. We each wished each other, "Good hunting," realizing we didn't want to see any game.
Danford was a hell of a nice guy. The only guy I ever knew that could get drunk just getting hit with a wet bar rag. We seemed to get hit with lots of bar rags in those days. Hell, there was nothing to do but risk one's life during the day, and then 'put a package on' at night. I would buy a small bottle of C.C. (Canadian Club) from the PX. Sometimes a bigger one depending upon how my job was going. There was a lot of nervous tension created by my day job. In the evenings I would knock back a few cocktails. I had to have a least a couple of shots; a bird can't fly on just one wing. Seems as if all my fellow workers had the same stress in their chosen field. We were never tanked when we flew nor did we ever take a bottle with us. Some mornings we would show up at work with a big head, from the relaxing going on, the night before. We weren't checking our oxygen masks for leaks before takeoff, we were inhaling the pure stuff to clear out the cobwebs.
After each mission we were rewarded, each, with a shot of Scotch. We were flying out of Great Britain and someone thought Scotch was the appropriate liquor, of choice. At the conclusion, of one mission, Roper had the good fortune to be gifted with eight libations. He received the entire crew's allotment, except mine. He ended up getting sick and going in his pants. I should have given him mine, and I don't mean the pants.
The day started uneventfully, that is if you don't count the feeling of bad luck, from the beginping. Our Top Turret Gunner, the 1st Engineer McCalicher, didn't feel comfortable in the that turret today. Mac kept coming back to talk to me. No one had said a word to each other, before we took off, and now McCalicher wouldn't keep quiet. He was real nervous, like a cat with a sixth sense, a feline with a foreboding intuition. Now he was a tabby choking on a fur ball and he couldn't cough it up. He hated being in the turret. He hated the confinement, he detested the view but I think he was most afraid of the loneliness there; the feelings of separation and desperate solitude.
There was another place more isolated and desperately alone. The ball was the last place any of us ever wanted to be. You're in a freaking world of your own. And who would want to be in a world all to yourself when the Krauts came knocking, on the door? You would not hear the noise or vibration of engines, gunfire or the intercom. There were only two sounds that could be heard inside; the beat of a heart and the approaching purr of German flying machines. All the omnipotent exuberance of being young and invincible vanished inside the ball. No one was ever in it during takeoff or landing. That would be too dangerous. Whomever was to go in there had to wait until the chances for German fighters appearing got more favorable. It would be hand cranked around until the two machine guns pointed at a 90 degree angle away from the belly. The victim would squeeze into a sphere about three feet in diameter and assume a fetal position. The crew above would screw the top back on and then he would be gone, to the rest of us, until we unsealed him before landing. Once secured he would rotate it to face the approach of the enemy. Danforth would do the rotating. It was an awful place.
"I think I see bandits, I think I see bandits!", was coming over the intercom from somewhere inside the Double Trouble. Someone wasn't sure, somebody was not going out on a limb, someone was afraid to make his call. Then silence. Even the raucous hum of the engines, even the noise from the wind flowing in vast arcs over the wings, and even the hiss in the earphones stopped. Time ceased and turned to granite and the whispers of remaining sound vanished. The Double Trouble drew a collective breath and waited. She waited for the abrupt change, in our lives, to come crashing forward. From this moment forward our crew would never have a peaceful silence; the silence of a tranquil moment.
"Look out! Look out! Look out!", came the shouts in abrupt bursts of tangible sound. "They're Germans!" After the shortest pause, "German fighters!" Another pause, another shout, followed by a winsome sigh. "The bastards are coming this way!"
Mac was in the passageway, with me, when the thirty caliber bullets squeezed, twisted and forced their way through the narrow corridor, that made my domain. He had ducked out of the Top Turret when the projectiles had blown his perch into fragments of unrecognizable shards. This time he had come not to talk but to flee, for his life, while uttering fitful screams of terror.
Danforth had been in the ball when the rounds come through the plexiglas windscreen. He didn't like the ball but he fit as fingers would into a glove. Danforth should have died instantly since that's where the bullets entered the ship, before snaking our way. He must have performed a secret act of God, or witnessed a miracle of faith, or squeezed himself into a hidden nothingness against the balls interior. The ball shattered as if a giant hand had thrown a boulder through the roof of a greenhouse. There was nothing left but air and thirty thousand feet. And this is the hole into which Danforth fell. He was far from sanctuary but at the least he was alive. He was strapped and dangling, above eternity, by the wisp of his safety line. Danforth had the look of surprise and the ultimate fright upon his entire body. He had gone ashen as if all his blood had been sucked out in one gargantuan gulp. Suddenly, Danforth was full of startling quick animation and started livid movements like a spider on a hot plate. He was all arms and legs scrambling for any catch hold any grip that would save his life. With a look of terror he finally crawled out of the ball, with the blood still draining from his face.
"Bobby, Bobby," it's okay I shouted at him, knowing it was a lie and that he would never be okay again. None of us would be, "Okay", again. Nothing would ever be "Okay", again.
Danforth had made it unscathed from the ball when he was hit two times in the back. The crashing blows came through the hull and ripped into the rear of his jacket as he was crawling towards me. He didn't scream as much as let out a gasp of agony and surprise. Bobby crumpled forward and pitched onto his shoulders and neck. He began to writhe in short convulsions and then curled into a ball. I knew that he was conscious but in great pain. He kept looking at me, and calling my name, in short gasps. He was just lying there, on the deck, looking up at me. Blood began to form an oval puddle encircling Danforth's prone body. I only had a few seconds to stare in wonder and bewilderment and pure fear.
At this same time something occurred, to me, that I will never comprehend. Something that should never happen in a person's life and maybe that is why it seemed so foreign, so out of place. I felt, more than heard a thump. It had become my turn. I was spun around- as if I had been pushed hard and fast by an invisible assailant with huge hands. I thought someone had hit me, in the back, with a two by four. Someone, with bad aim, hit me a glancing blow, with a sledge hammer. It was a big one. The rounds went between my leather jacket and electrically heated flight suit. As deft as a physician's scalpel, it cut through the copper wiring of my suit leaving my body untouched. I pulled myself off the deck and stared at the bullet hole entering my flight jacket, and disappearing deep inside. It had gone, without protest, through the metal skin of the aircraft and through my jacket. Then with vengeance continued out the other side, of the hull. The projectiles had come from a Me 109 or Fw 190. I never found out which, it happened too fast. The pride of the German Luftwaffe came out of nowhere; except perhaps the maw of Hell. We never had a warning, all we had was the horrifying aftermath of those flying devils. "And that," as they say, "is the hell of it."
The half inch machine guns spewed hot shell casings in piles upon the metal deck. I swear I could hear the brass sizzling as it piled in a disorderly heap, at my feet. They leaped from the breech in strong arcs bouncing from my chest and face and caroming off metal walls, making high pitched whining pings. My hands and arms vibrated, stinging the bones within. I shot in long staccato pulses. I watched the tracers trying to swing in front of the 109's. They were trying to keep up with or ahead of their intended path. It was a rhapsody gone wild and reckless, conducted by my unrelenting beats. I felt more than smelled the acrid sweet odor of gunpowder. My nostrils flared with the washing stench of sulfur, even though my oxygen mask. The bolts of my guns became a blur as they rapidly went back and forth. Long cartridge belts of ammunition whizzed from ammo cases, at my feet, sometimes entangling my ankles. And the noise. It was like being inside a metal trash can with Babe Ruth swinging, for the fences, against its side. The whole plane rocked and danced through the sky, dipping and waving its wings as it played a deadly game of, "Tag, you're it!" I added to this rhythm of movement by swinging and dipping my guns. "They're too fast, they're too fast and too small to hit," I screamed to myself! The long line seemed endless as it presented itself, in formation, racing past my spitting weapon. I heard the carping and the splintering of peeling metal and I knew that the fighters were cutting us up with a fatal precision.
Those Nazi flying bastards had a saying. We were told this and I have every reason to believe it to be the truth. We were informed that the Germans had two types of crosses, it was their choice. They could have a wood cross or an iron Cross. The wood cross was given to pilots that were splattered all over the landscape with no identification of their remains possible, or worth the effort. They might be fortunate if they even got a cross. The Iron Cross was a German medal given for bravery. With it came bragging rights and much beer and schnapps. I think the Germans wanted to spare trees this day and keep the iron forges stoked.
The yells, in my headphones, overpowered all other sounds. Killer Kane screamed, -I'm hit, I'm hit! I'm hit!" Those were the last words he uttered, in this lifetime. He died quickly as the blood spurted from his yawning wounds. I turned and saw his life pouring all over the floor, of his position. His guts were dripping down the inside of the nose. ,Bright vermilion and crimson sliding on sunlit Plexiglas.
"Kane's dead!", I shouted into the intercom. I hadn't seen death before, not up close or warm like this, but in that instant I memorized it. I sensed Kane's soul leaving his body. I felt it in his last words and I saw it in his gaze. A gaze so lost and forlorn with the look of apology, for leaving us. That's when I first thought, "What the hell am I doing here? This wasn't supposed to happen to Kane or to us." I didn't have long to think on this; the sky was on fire with bursts of explosions and machine gun tracers. I had to get back to my craft. I was also in the business of killing.
I saw a distant Messerschmitt getting into position, for a run at my side. It started a lazy half circle which it never completed. With a sharp swooping turn it began its attack. I lagged behind it, aiming at its tail, and then my tracers slowly gained upon the body. Swinging hard I brought the guns to bear upon my target. "Keep on it, concentrate. Keep on it. Keep on it," I repeated to myself in a distant mantra. The 109 began to disintegrate piece by piece. There appeared a white puff of smoke and then the plane and pilot were gone, in a flash of brilliance. I felt empathy and elation, I had just killed.
Those German fighters had some hot machine cannons on their wings, I can promise you that much. I felt some pain but it didn't seem to be part of me. I had other concerns coming at me real fast. I turned around smelling smoke and feeling heat. I screamed into the intercom, "Hey, this place is hot! We're on fire!" Then I realized where I was and what was happening. I got on the intercom again and shouted, "We're hit, we're hit!" Later they told me that this was the first time anyone had ever heard me say anything on the intercom. I never liked to talk on that damn thing.
Through the noise and static I faintly heard the Copilot Weir answer with shouts that forever changed my life, "Bail out! Bail out!" This is to the whole crew, "Bail out!"
The sky was shivering with Me 109's slicing through the sky, some diving at over five hundred miles per hour. They were coming from the sun, which was at noon height, lined up two abreast; in a long winding ribbon. Their cannons were rupturing our formation into broken pieces and I felt that they were singularly attacking my ship. They were after me and I had no place to duck. They swung around in what passed for moments and took another whack, at me. We were going down. There was no salvation, in eternity, that could save us. Our plane was afire and we had casualties. All was smoke, confusion and the realization that the blood of our B-24, was spilling throughout the hemorrhaged interior. There were aviation fuel vapors and the phantom of smoke accosting my nostrils. Even in subzero degrees the stench was raw and powerful. Like a stone skipping across the top of a pond, we in the end must sink. We were going down! The certainty was we were destined to crash, there was no doubting that. My gun held me upright and I fired random bursts at the Messerschmitts. I shot more out of anger and fear than with an excited adrenaline rush. I was afraid of
burning, I was afraid of crashing, I was afraid of jumping from heights, and I was afraid I might piss those fighters off if I blew another one out of the sky.
A strange and odd happening took place which was, in its simplicity, surreal. We were on fire, our engines were crippled and we were a gliding coffin. We were more than a sitting duck. We were a fattened goose with its wings clipped. We were nothing left but target practice. I was still gripping the triggers of my guns even though they had fired their last rounds moments before. Then, coming straight at me, was a lone enemy fighter. He had throttled back and was coming in slow and close for a good shot. He was on his final flight path, and ours too. Then I looked him in the eyes and he waved at me. It was more of a salute actually and he flew past and beyond my formation but never out of my memory. You're allowed only one of `these' in a lifetime and I had just cashed in.
The Messerschmitts weren't the only fighters bursting through the heavens that day. Hitting and pestering that streak of Germans was our halo of protective Mustangs. They were intertwining and trying to balance the vast outnumbering of Luftwaffe forces. The B-24 column was the focus point of this swarming hive. The Germans were trying to strike us down, to kill us, to make us go away from their sacred inviolate land. Our fighters were sacrificing themselves to afford us unmolested flight. They were profanely outnumbered. Double Trouble was a piece of beef with flies swarming around it.
The Mustangs would hit and run just like the Messerschmitts were doing to us. They attempted to blind side the Germans since there was no way they could out fight them, one on one. The math wasn't correct; we were vastly out numbered. Our pilots tried to, move the fight elsewhere away from the formation. It was a sacrificing movement. In the end there were just too many of the Germans. Their air bases were nearby, ours were across the English Channel; in another world.
We had lost an engine and the Double Trouble started to fall fast and fall sideways. She \,\,as on a downward spiral to Hell. Everything got crazy and chaotic in such a short eternity, comprised of intrinsically short moments. The world of the Double Trouble was turned upside down, in only seconds. Everything was wrong. Everything that was in order and reasonable, a few moments ago, was now in shambles. Everything was dreadfully and sorrowfully wrong. How could we even begin to crawl out the small hatch, at our steep angle and rate of fall? Now I had to escape this burning conflagration, this inferno, and hope I would be saved by my bulky parachute. This thing that was always in the way, always on my back, now had a good opportunity to redeem itself.
Smoke filled the round corridor, between the fuselage, with an acrid smell and a coughing stink. It burned my eyes even with my goggles in place. I started choking and looked for Lawson, our Radioman, to see in what condition he was and how he was `thriving' in all this madness. Lawson stumbled down the passage towards me with McCalicher closely in pursuit. Earl was holding his hands crossed in front of his face and Mac was just holding his hands limp at his side. Mac's fists were useless lumps of barbecued flesh flailing the air as if that would somehow cool and take away the pain of partial incineration. Already, they were swollen to double their God-given size. The blisters had already formed on Earl's hands and were starting to appear around his goggles to make a matching set to those already encompassing Mac's visage. Earl's face was bright pink showing omens of blistering. They were huge grotesque bubbles that only fire can cause. He had been sending out a distress call as the fire was digesting him and all around him. Earl had stayed on his radio as the fire crept towards him. "Bobby," he called out my name. "Can I make it out the window?"
"Of course, you can make it Earl," I offered. "We're all going to make it. I'll be right behind you!" I knew that this was a lie even as I spoke because I was going back, to look for the others.
"Okay, Smiley," Earl said and turned around. I told him we had to get out of our riggings and bail out as quickly as possible. We had our tickets punched and this was the end of the line. No extended trip, no return flight; we had one chance to live and this was it. Fate was calling very loudly to take it. And then Technical Sergeant Earl J. Lawson, Radio Operator from Hobbs, New Mexico disappeared out the widow and into the sky. Earl had sensed an opportunity `not' to become another footnote in history.
Bobby McCalicher bailed out through the bomb bay door, right where the fire was consuming the oil and aviation fuel; next to the incendiary bombs. Mac was the only one to go out that way. It was my first choice but it was too hot, for me, to approach. Great wisps of pluming black smoke smothered the bomb bay enclosure. Somewhere in its locale had to be a burning core of wire, rubber, oil, fuel and whatever odds and ends that could conspire to make up this conflagration. Billows of smoke obliterated visibility and even with my oxygen mask on I was breathing great inhalations of blackness. I was coughing and tears were oozing down my face. The Double Trouble was vibrating, in mechanical spasms, as she became unstable from engine loss and structural damage. We were being thrown side to side and up and down. We held on to anything near to prevent us from slamming into a bulkhead. To be knocked unconscious, at this time, would become a fatal mistake.
The fire was also sending maddening waves of heat through the bomber's body. I could feel the hot pulses, from the fire, twenty, feet distant through my flight suit. How anyone could approach such an obstacle as the bomb bay area would be daunting. To go into it would be insanity. The bomb bay area found its maniac when the 1st Engineer jumped through the open bay door. Mac had to get out, and in times of such desperate extremes this may have been his only escape. The last glimpse I caught of our 1st Engineer was his leathered back lumbering into that black cloud, of smoke and fire, as some turtle might slip into rough seas.
I heard Danford calling to me. He must have shaken off the pain from his wounds and was now standing beside me. Standing, hell! I thought he was half dead last time I saw him. "Longo," he said, "we've got to get the hell out of here! The window, let's go out the window! Smiley, get the hell out the window!" He was now covered in a darker red after much of his blood had marinated through his leathers. I didn't see any pain or fear in his face. I don't believe he was in shock, not yet, his eyes only registered the honest desire to abandon ship. "Smiley, let's go!"
Danford and I made our way to the exits. The matinee was over and there was no second feature today. He seemed to be doing fine now but there was blood everywhere. His jacket and pants were soaked in it. Red ooze and gore shinning in the noon day sun. But Danford knew what he had to do, he had to jump for his life; what was left of it. Bobby McCalicher was in the top turret. I was in the waist right side and Harold was in the left. And Gienko still never wore his flak jacket. It was yet hanging as a screen, in front of him, in his tiny retreat. Lucky for him because it had worked better that way then the manual's suggested usage. It was full of holes from the Messerschmitt's guns but it stood fast. He later told me that he could feel the flak jacket punching him in the chest from the rounds smashing into it. The man was a visionary.
Well, when it got real hot in there, from the fire, and after the Copilot gave the permission to bail out, it didn't take much coaxing from Danford. Bobby Danford was already half way out his side. The smoke was escaping in great volumes through the small windows, enveloping Bobby's body. He was acting a little funny and started to turn ashen.
"Danford, what the hell's wrong with you," I mumbled more than shouted. What was I thinking, I had seen him bleeding and almost unconscious only minutes before.
"I took a couple," he mumbled in return. And I saw them again, the holes. Sure enough I could see the penetrations in his flight jacket. There were two in the back, right near the middle. Danford had been shot twice in the spine and was still walking. An inch closer, to it, and he would have been as dead as sure as anything I've ever been sure of, in this lifetime. I guess this War had turned to a game of inches. And then he was gone, dropping through the sky. God outdid Himself today.
I crossed and went out the right window. I was the Left Waist Gunner on today's outing but I squeezed through the right waist window. It wasn't rational to cross to the other side, to jump, but that is exactly what I did. I vividly remember the chaos and the confusion and heat and smoke. It was a real tight squeeze but I knew the plane was going to blow. That window couldn't have been more than a foot and a half wide and maybe a foot high. I wanted to go out the bomb bay door but it was saturated with fire and smoke. Here, I was only engulfed in smoke. I stuck my head through and then thrust my right arm and shoulder out. After squeezing my left arm out I began forcing the rest of my body to follow. The ground passed below in slow motion at an odd angle. I saw toy houses and cartoon trees underneath me, many miles distant. I noticed a river; I saw fields. I compared the green vegetation of the trees with the brown of the pastures. I felt sick and my stomach was hollow. Everything had gone wrong, I felt that we had all failed. I had failed mom, my country and my crew. I felt guilty that I was leaving Killer behind. I didn't want to desert him now when he needed me most. I hesitated and then with a sour feeling, I jumped. So I visited Germany, for over a year, by falling from an open window. It's a messy business, 'life'.
Lt. Gerald Rogers was tense and vigilant peering out the cockpit window. He was in the pilot's seat on the port or left side. Copilot Dick weir \,\,as in the starboard seat. The chance for enemy fighters and antiaircraft fire appearing got better the deeper we approached the core of Germany. Rogers' eyes focused on the high horizon, about twelve o'clock. He knew there would be Messerschmitts and he knew they would come out of th`e sun. No use looking down, ack-ack could not be seen approaching like the winged bats of Hell. German fighters were a different ball game. They could rise from below but that might become the last route they would take to their destination. They couldn't gel great speed rising. They would come from a direction with a gravity drop. They would come from above. And they came! Rogers saw them first and tapped Dick's shoulder and pointed. They saw the long line approaching, as mere specks, black against the sunlit background. The B-24 was not agile or as swift, in movement, as the fighters. Our only hope was the strength of our tight formation and our firing platform. Evasive maneuvers were limited and sloth like compared to the tactics of the descending Me 109's.
Our bomber as all B-24's had problems. She had been built with deficiencies in armor and firepower. This certainly didn't bring much cheer to the crew especially to those in the forward section. We had a weakness and it didn't take too many knockdowns for the Luftwaffe to discover and exploit it. Our weakness was in the nose of the plane. The Me 109's always attacked the bomber's rears until they discovered that we couldn't protect our leading edge. We were vulnerable to attack from the front. We couldn't bring enough weaponry to shield that sector. I had heard stories that the B-24 had some poor flying characteristics. I didn't understand what they were but what I did understand, and this worried me, was that this model was prone to catching fire with just a superficial strike. We were flying in a handicapped tinderbox.
"Enemy fighters at ten 'clock! Coming in fast!", shouted Rogers, his palpably anxiety muffled by his rubber oxygen mask. "Mac, you see 'em?"
"Yeah, I got 'em!", answered McCalicher, from the ball.
"I see the bastards, too!", excitement flowing from some unrecognized voice.
"They're coming down our left flank! Pick 'em up, pick `em up!", someone kept repeating. I think it was Dick who was urging us from the Copilot's seat.
Another unidentifiable rasping voice shrieked, "They're all over the place! Get us out of here!"
"Watch 'em, watch 'em! Bobby, ya got the bastards?", shouted Mac from the ball.
"Yeah, got 'em!"
Shooting upon the attacker first was perhaps an enterprising accomplishment but the enemy, in turn, would return their fire first, to that burst of flash, from the front. Mac swung his guns to the left and was returning stuttering exchanges with the fighters. The entire Double Trouble shuddered and throbbed with the rattle of fifty caliber weapons. We were transformed into a ship of guns, a flying weapons battery; intent not so much as destroying the enemy but to fight for our survival. I was giving them everything I had. I would launch the world at them if I could get my hands on it. The Luftwaffe was calmly stacking sandbags.
Weir watched as the me 109 did a tight pirouette and danced towards Double Trouble's right wing. The Kraut was intent upon taking out our engines. He was a professional. This pilot didn't give a rat's patoot about killing our crew. He wanted to knock this bomber out of commission. If we died in the resultant crash that was just our tough luck. He came swooping in with tremendous speed. It had been built up by his long decent from a n ile or more above the bomber. All guns opened up and the 109's burst ripped our starboard engine into boat anchors. He had come charging downward with great rapidity in a swanlike loop, only straightening in the last half mile; that was covered in seconds.
There was no thinking involved only a raw instinct on my part. It was all slow motion and time frozen in suspension. My body and reflexes took over from my conscious thought. All action came automatically even the cold sweat that began to freeze over my eyebrows. After the oil drained from the mortally wounded engine, which took about ten seconds, smoke began to spew out and erupted into a well fanned fire. By this time the 190 must have been miles away starting his turn. This gyration would uncorkscrew delivering a death throe for some other unfortunate B-24; or it would become the final dance of the 190. The flight was to the finish. There could be no reprieve; there would be no armistice until this foray was a fait accompli. This after all was the goal of air combat and the body of the War itself. The devil was behind the wheel trying to stick it to us.
In minutes, even seconds, Rogers knew that it was hopeless to save his airship. The enemy pilots were really 'hanging it out' trying to get us. Lieutenant Rogers didn't have to put a fork in it to know it was done. Buck Rogers realized his one dangerous heroic option was to save his crew. He had heard me shout that the Double Trouble was burning on the inside. All he had to do was look out his window, to see another fire, in the engine. He knew that the fighters sensed the agony of a wounded beast and they would focus upon their opportunity, for further victory. We must have been trailing smoke for miles, guiding the German pilots, to their quarry.
Buck Rogers gave the command to abandon ship. Rogers said it calmly and with supreme leadership. That order included all personnel, that order included Dick Weir his Copilot. Dick had repeated the order over the intercom to all the crew, "Bail out!" Dick got that order from his superior, Rogers. Rogers stayed at the controls to afford his crew enough time, to climb out doors, out hatches, anyway out; to float to safety. And in a short time Rogers would be piloting an empty ship, except for the dead and those about to be.
The Double Trouble was at a sickly disobedient angle and was slipping through the sky twisting towards the German potato fields. I pushed and kicked myself out and plunged into the bright blue sunlight. The wind caught my body as I fell away from the fuselage. I saw the tail section whip past me and just above, at about two-hundred and twenty-eight miles per hour. That was another one of the fears I had. Bad dreams of hitting the tail and being cut in half or getting my chute caught on it, and being dragged for miles hopelessly churning, to my crashing death. My stomach was in my chest as I free fell for what seemed minutes, but I now know were only seconds. I grasped the ripcord and the wind speeding past me suddenly slowed as I was yanked abruptly upright, by the deploying parachute. The cold clear air stung my nose and eyes and the odor of burning plane \,\,as left behind, along with my fear of being trapped inside her. I floated downward becoming curious of the vista, and I searched the skies, for other chutes and incoming fighters. I trusted the pilots' keen eyesight could not mistake my blossomed canopy, for a puff of white cloud; nor would they want to continue their attack upon me.
The bomber continued earthward at an ever steeping pitch and trailed a signature of flame and vapors. Spiraling smoke followed the carcass of our plane as it made a vortex in the sky. Flames were being fanned by the bellows of descent. I could hear her screams with lessening intensity as she sped away. Around me and at varying distances I spied some of my crew, by their mushrooming chutes. And I was the same as they, hanging from risers and silk, amid German Messerschmitts encircling their own domain.
I surveyed the Double Trouble, with curiosity, growing smaller and smaller and `then' the bright flash of eruption. Seconds later I heard and felt the shock wave. It was the last farewell from the Double Trouble. Buck Rogers had stayed at the controls and saved our lives, my life, as the Double Trouble limped ahead and exploded into a sphere, transforming herself into a fire-yellow blossom. She broke apart and through the smoke I could still see her forward movement. Wings flipped and floated as someone might toss an errant playing card into a hat. All control and lift lost, the heavy parts drifted and fell downward in a relaxed spin. Farther and farther the bits and pieces separated and fell away until they no longer were visible to my eyes. She was only our lady for a day, and in some way she may have let us down, but she gave her life for us and her country. It was then that I felt a pang of pride and remorse. We could never have asked for more and she will forever rest, in and on German landscape, never to resemble a plane again. What a costly way to plow an empty field.
Weir had left Rogers. piloting the skies, on Rogers' order. He had scrambled backwards towards the top hatch, a short distance aft. He barely fit as he squeezed between the wing and the engine as he fell away from the ruptured fuselage. Later with a swollen and blackened chin, from hitting the barrel of a machine gun upon exit, Weir told me he suddenly became hungry while floating towards the earth. Dick was silently heading downward when, for some bizarre reason, he craved chocolate. He reached down to the pockets of his flight pants where he always kept at least two Hershey bars. He found nothing. He really found nothing. All his pockets had been ripped away. They must have caught on the hatch or wing as he forced himself out, to the open sky. Dick didn't realize it had happened in his hasty departure from flame and smoke. I only had one thing to say to him later, "How many times did I tell you to get pants with zippers instead of pockets?"
I couldn't wait to get on the ground as I had only loosely put on my chute. We'd put them on that way because they were always in the way. They were just large bulks of canvas and silk humped on our backs. Always in the way they were objects we hoped would never be used. I had never cinched the leg harness on one side. Due to this failure the other one rode up into my crotch. When the canopy caught the air the cinch strap caught my balls. I never got my Purple Heart for this wound but I should have gotten at least a commendation. Oh, I later received a Purple Heart, with clusters, but I really deserved one more. I could hear the Germans yelling at me from the ground but I couldn't wait to land, I was in such agony. They shouted upwards, to me, almost all the way from the bail out, to the ground. There would be no hiding or running, for me; no great escape. I was a center attraction, and all on the ground were following my progress. Broad daylight, at high noon, and I had nowhere to hide. I had fallen off the high-wire, in front of the visiting crowd, under the big top'.
I landed in a swamp. Luckily it was shallow for I could never have remained afloat with my chute, boots and leather jacket. I would have survived a Messerschmitt attack, a forced parachute drop from a burning aircraft full of bombs and gasoline, only to drown in an anonymous mire. I rolled my chute fast to hide it. I didn't want them to get their hands on the precious silk. Silk was a valuable commodity to the enemy, they could make lots, of shirts with one chute, lots of German ties, lots of things about which I knew nothing. I was told, in briefings, to never let the Krauts get a hold of my parachute. I think if burlap would have worked the `brass' would have been more than happy to let us pack that; instead of the white gold I was trained to never let get into enemy hands. I heard later that some of the purloined chutes were put to very good use by the Germans. That's if you care for fancy weddings. The white silk made wonderful bride's gowns during a scarce economy. I didn't even get invited.
There was another thing that worried me after I landed safely. I was worried that my family would think that I was dead and other even worse things about me, if I were captured. And here I was still alive walking around. I feared that a black automobile, with American flags on the bumper, would stop in front of my mom's home. An officer and a NCO, perhaps even a sergeant, would step out and march to the door, knocking with solemnity. "Are you Mrs. Longo? Do you have a son, Staff Sergeant Robert James Longo? We are sorry to tell you that your son is missing in action; perhaps dead or taken prisoner by the Germans.
Or just as worse, my mother would simply be handed a yellow envelope with black typewritten lettering. She would tremble before opening it. Her whole body and soul would shake from the bad news the Army had wrought upon her doorway. My mom's front stoop would be where she would learn about my death and that porch would never be crossed again, by her, without thinking about that sorrowful day. That infamous day when the black car crawled, to a halt, in front of our home; searching for the soon to be bereaved Mrs. Longo.
I wasn't concerned about myself. I was only nineteen and didn't care. Much later I found that my mother, while making my bed at home, saw me falling, to earth in a big white parachute. Mom had seen a vision. She had known all along that her son was and would be all right. On the day I was shot down, dear Mother Longo chose to rearrange my linen. She was making it nice and fresh for my eventual return. As she fluffed and bothered with the sheets and pillow cases I know she was singing softly with a tear in each corner of her swollen eyes. Mom knew that my love for her would never wane and that it was eternal and for ever. Knowing this, she knew and understood that I could not be dead and that I would be returning home after all this, "nasty foolish war business," was finished. She knew more than I, and her love never deserted me. Yes, I would be coming home. It is always best not to question such things as a mother's love.
My cascading parachute must have been visible for miles, in its decent, for in minutes I was approached by civilians. They appeared from the fields that singularly embraced the countryside. They actually encircled me, all appearing to be very curious. Holding rakes and shovels I viewed them not as aggressors but as farmers, spectators to a vignette of war. Possibly, this was their first American. Possibly, I was their first downed conquering liberator, their grounded hero, their foolish American. From the look in their eyes I knew more trouble was on its way.
In seconds, German soldiers were on the lip of the swamp. The civilians had arrived first only because they knew and owned the land; the soldiers were visitors. With aimed weapons the troops ordered me to keep my hands up but I kept reaching down to loosen my one thigh strap. It was like a scene from a "Three Stooges" movie. I would reach down and they would point their rifles, in a gesture, for me to raise my hands. At this point I just reached down and took the damn chute off. I didn't care if they shot me, I had to get that chute off my crotch. It's funny what we remember in war and in combat. This seemed to make it somewhat human and common place. Now I know war, is not human. Or it is too human, and that is a terrible thing. And certainly war is too common.
Suddenly, a German motorcycle soldier drove up almost hitting me. First thing he did was stick his rifle against my forehead, all the while screaming, "Pistole, pistole!" He thought all air crew men carried pistols. If I had carried one I am absolutely sure it would have become a wonderful souvenir he could forever show his friends and relatives. I certainly didn't want a weapon at this time in my capture and circumstance. Hell, someone might have thought I was offering a germ of resistance and start getting real nasty.
Finally, I convinced him that I didn't have a weapon by turning my pockets inside out. With his gun still upon me he gestured toward his vehicle. I thought we were going on a ride, through the countryside, the way he was pointing with his gun. A ride to jail or to where ever he took prisoners. A motorcycle with two seats; I really thought we would go for a spin. Then he made me push the damn thing. I kept saying, "Let's drive."
He kept saying, "Nein, nein!" I'm pushing this heavy gray green BMW motorcycle while the Kraut has a bolt action Mauser aimed at me. The last thing I was thinking about was running off, to who knows where, while a German has a gun on me. I knew he didn't want me to ride behind him because then he couldn't hold the weapon on me. of course, pushing that bike did keep my hands occupied. We walked to a farmhouse and in a short while a German truck rolled to a stop. At once, I don't know if was the noise or a sixth sense, we both looked skyward just as two B-24's collided. It's a horrible sight to see two planes break apart after hitting each other with such intensity. And I knew that the falling wreckage might contain vestiges of personal friends; certainly acquaintances.
My guard smiled and said, "Das is gut!" I got him real angry when I yelled, "BS! There'll be a thousand coming back tomorrow!"
He knew I was telling the truth and his frustration showed as he became more urgent, with his forced marching. What I had said really pissed him off. (Later, reports stated that all crew members, of both bombers, were killed but I definitely saw two chutes come down and land beyond the tree line.) I was alone, with my captor, and disoriented and had no idea where I was going. I'd heard some terrible stories about prisoners of war and here I was, right in the middle of it, with my personal guard. I \,\,as young and I was too stubborn to let this guy bother me after falling from a burning plane. I was glad to be alive. A few hours ago I was in England eating breakfast and now here I was pushing a German soldier's motorcycle, as a prisoner of war. I never considered that I would see a German soldier up close and face to face. How could I? I was in the Air Corps and never supposed to stop, for a visit in Deutchland, only fly over it.
I pushed the bike towards a German hospital. I wasn't hurt and didn't want to go but all captured soldiers had to go for a checkup. Here I ran into McAlester. He was injured so I decided to keep him company. The German doctors weren't taking care of McAlester as I thought they should. Mac had blisters on the back of his hands that must have been three inches high. They were swollen and grotesquely shaped not unlike an old leather baseball mitt.
I kept yelling and trying to make them understand, "Will you fix his hands!"
Mac's eyes were barely visible behind the puffiness that once was his face. That too, was swollen and blistered from the flames fanned by the winds of speed and descent. And still they did nothing for him. They seemed more concerned with me and my clothing. A German soldier liked my flight jacket and looked at it greedily with plunder in his glare. I couldn't believe it, he was only a corporal and yet he wanted my jacket. He was a corporal and he was a pilot. The Krauts must be getting hard up for officers to let a corporal steer, I thought. He liked my leather so much he took it for himself. I really wanted that jacket because it had a bullet hole in it, right in the back. I really miss that jacket. Of all the things about W.W.II, I only want that jacket. It had "Bobby" stitched above the breast pocket. Again, I never had time to get my whole name embroidered upon the pocket. It seems as if there was never enough time, thinking back, or my perspective has changed to fit selective memories. Long ago, perhaps a German moniker was stitched over the top of "Bobby". Somewhere an ,Otto" or a "Manfred" is hidden in some German vet's closet; a memento of W.W.II.
After what I thought was an unreasonably long time the German doctors fixed up Mac and the others that were wounded. They worked on the air crews as if they were their own children. They weren't taking their time, they were only previously booked with appointments. They had lots of injured coming in. Those doc's treated us real swell.
I still thank God that the Buck put me in the waist, of the plane that day. Rogers said, "Bobby, I need an Engineer in the back for today's flight." A simple request, not an order, and I dutifully took my place in the waist. What Roger's really wanted was the best Engineer near him, in the front, that knew what was what, better than anyone else. That made all the difference, for me, in the rest of my life. A simple chain of events was initiated and this story is part of the outcome. I could have wound up caught in the fire and burned. I may have been standing in the way of the German bullets as they entered the ship and trespassed down its narrow channel. I am lucky to be alive and everyday I give that little bit of insight a thought and a prayer. I felt so sorry for Mac, his hands and face all puffy and burnt. I can't get that sight out of mind, even now. I felt awful for Mac and so very sympathetic and guilty. Deep inside me I was glad it was he and not I. My best friend was a burn victim and I was reduced to inward glee that I was not covered with blisters. Damn the Germans that lowered me to ever have this selfish thought.
The platform truck rumbled to a desolate train siding. Here was a small stop along side a village of pig farmers. The small houses were neat in appearance and well maintained. They looked old with stone and block walls and gray slate roofs. Now and then a red tiled roof would jut out, from a white washed wall, to break the monotony. All of this was so new and foreign to me and of course it was. Everything looked so different from home and even England. In this jumbled up war the farmers still fed their stock and the pigs still wandered free. Soon the sky was filled with the gray soot billowing from the stack of a coal burning locomotive. It slowly sidled up to the walkway; an ash strewn path with tuffs of grass sprouting here and there. I was unceremoniously pushed through the gapping door of a dark green boxcar. My eyes, after a few seconds, adjusted to the interior darkness and I realized I was not a solitary passenger. I was pushed to one side, of the car, and forced to sit on the bare wood floor. And this was the last I ever saw of my German motorcyclist. I don't miss him, but I often think about pushing that BMW, so many years ago. I'm still upset that I had to push that damn two wheeled pile of steel so far. That cyclist was crazy if he thought I was going to make a run for it. He had the gun and I had no place to go. I didn't even know where I was.
As I was pushed down, into a sitting position, I felt elbows and knees and heard yells of, "Hey, buddy, will ya watch it!" And, "What're ya doing?" I was the extra sardine in an already too full can of POWs. I brought the total of downed and captured crewmen, in this carriage to twenty three. Oh, there was enough room except we were all huddled on one side while there were only three forms on the opposite. They were in gray uniforms and there was no mistaking their roles. They were three older soldiers probably of the 'home guard', since all younger men were busy on Hitler's many extended 'fronts'. Hitler had spread his forces thin and for backup he had only the young and the old. Anyone could guard a bunch of `kids' and there was little doubt that these `home guard' had served their county once before; in the "war to end all wars": World War 1. No males their age could have avoided it. They had an air of experience and relaxed indifference. I got the impression that they were only waiting for another war to end.
We weren't very jovial or elated in our near future prospects. We had just been shot down over very hostile territory. Many of our comrades in arms were dead or wounded. We were captured, heading for prison, or who knows what or worse? We had become a very testy group. It was crowded. I started bitching and yelling. I complained about everything but mostly that we were packed like peas in a pod. I carped that it was crowded, on my side, and there was so much room on the other side. I wanted elbow room and I was quite boisterous in making that necessity vocal. Anywhere but here I would have been evicted for being rowdy. Here I was taking a chance getting testy with trained fighting men, from two different armies and I was smack in the middle.
One of the German soldiers stood up, pointed to me and said in a voice with much presence and authority and not to be taken lightly, "Komrnen zie heir!"
I was ready for a contest. The hair twitched on my back as I crossed the few, feet of open space, to the other side. He told me to, "Sit," in German, but I understood him better when he pointed to the floor. And there I was, sitting on the floor with three Germans. Well, I had my extra space now but all the lads were now yelling at me. They wanted to cross to the less occupied side but the guards would have no part of that.
I taunted back, "You guys should have opened your mouths if you had a problem with accommodations!"
I had sure yelled at the Germans. What could they do to me, throw me in jail, arrest me? The soldier yelling at me, with the most bitterness, was the neatly uniformed German. He must have believed in 'the cause' more than the other two soldiers, or maybe I was just complicating his unasked for vocation? Now everyone was screaming back and forth. He was screaming and pointing towards me as if he was a Field Marshall. After a short time at this he threw his arms up in what must have been frustration.
The eldest soldier stood, glared at him and the prisoners and ordered, "Ruhe!", shut up!
That oldest German guard that I sat with turned out to be quite the fellow. He was set apart when the sunlight filtered through and highlighted the hoary streaks of his hair and beard. His uniform was soiled and ill fitting but worn as though he were attending the symphony; proud and with all the brass buttons securely attached. We communicated in broken English since I knew little if any German. Why learn it, I wasn't going to be captured? His English came practiced with every POW that must have been in his charge. He was like most soldiers in this obscene war. He was just doing his job and he missed his family. He rested his rifle across his knees as he reached behind him searching through the folds of his uniform. He produced a well worn large leather purse and began peeling the layers back.
"Heir, very gute, yes, ja?" And with that he handed me photographs wrinkled and yellowed of his wife and two children. He had been a farmer before the War and only wanted to go home, to become again what he once was, a grower of potatoes and cabbages. In that boxcar he and I only wanted the same, to go home.
Those old railroad cars certainly were noisy and bumpy. They weren't made for people but for moving cattle and sheep and other objects that couldn't get a sore rear end. It was like sitting on a log bouncing along a stream full of boulders. I had taken enough of this even though I was actually having pleasant conversation with an enemy soldier. Strange, I was part of a bomber crew, in many ways separated from direct contact with the enemy. And yet, here I was sitting on a wood floor looking at family pictures and being offered a smoke, by a German guard. I was actually sitting with the enemy and parlez vous-ing. I felt like asking one of the GI's to pinch me but I was done talking to them. The War must be full of individual stories. Mine is merely one tiny thread woven through the tapestry of the 1940's.
It took the coal burning smoke belching steam engine five days and four nights to achieve its destination. We had rolled from near Frankfurt to Leipzig coming to Stalagluft 6, erected on the outskirts of Danzig. Not that it was a slow train, it just had to stop at every small track siding, on the way, to allow more important trains to rumble past. It allowed German troop trains and ammunition boxcars first priority. I don't know what was in the rest of our assemblage, of wheeled carriages, but I would guess pigs by the bouquet. It couldn't have been us, we had taken our last wash only a week ago. We steamed into every small village and town, on route, and stayed sometimes for hours- Some towns were so small we had to back out, often for miles, since there was only one rail line that dead ended. Going backwards we knew we were on our way again, wherever that was?
I couldn't have a BM for five days in that boxcar. I had a real good case of constipation. Little wonder with some of the unknown stuff I was eating. Yet, I was more fortunate than many of the others. Some of the guys had diarrhea the entire week. They appeared nauseated and emaciated at the same time. They were becoming dehydrated and by drinking fluids, they became worse. The water must have been contaminated. It had to be the source of so many cases of dysentery. I don't know how I did it but I went the five days with very little intake of fluid. I refused to drink the water. In addition to the pickle I was in, I didn't want the backdoor trots.
The train started to slow and with much anxiety and anticipation we knew this part of our deepening saga was over. The carriage stopped with a clanking of couplings and brakes and we were ordered to stand or, "Aufstehen Sie en!" The airmen on the opposite side were departing one by one, onto the railroad platform, preceded by one of the guards. The older German guard and myself were the last to descend, to the cracked weed encroached concrete landing. When he stepped down, from the boxcar, he handed me his machine-pistol; since he couldn't get down, very well, while he was holding it. I held it and took his hand so he wouldn't lose his balance and harm himself. He motioned for me to continue holding the weapon while he stood next to the tracks, facing them. He had to take a piss call, and he couldn't do that with much grace holding his automatic pistol. Even the other Germans and we POWs never once thought that this' might be anything but the most natural of actions. And this shall always remain a good memory in a terrible conflict, during a terrible cruelty to mankind.
Again we were in the bright sunlight. It felt good shining on my face but I cursed the sun for giving away the Double Trouble's position, in the clear skies. A heaven so transparent and blue it is unfathomable to nurture it ill will. And yet I did, knowing in my heart of hearts it was not the `day' that gave us away. Rather the impossibility not to notice a multitude such as ours, approaching industrial targets, was our undoing.
I often wondered what emotions the German Luftwaffe pilot experienced when he first spied the sought after quarry, and found it, reflecting in the noon sun? And what adrenaline when he excitedly squeezed the trigger that sent forward hails of doom, for our B-24? He is the man I would like to sit down with someday and have a whisky. I would look him in the eye and say, "Well, it took a good man and you got us. " The chance of this happening is nil, even if he survived the War; and very few German fighter pilots did survive. They were a very brave and unique breed of men. Yet again, and as ever was, the best and youngest give their lives, for war.
Soon these thoughts left me as we were huddled into a long building, of brick, which passed as barracks. I started to complain about the cramped environment again when I heard a new voice, low and filled with the ownership of commanding control. "Komen Sie heir."
He got what he was after, all right. My boots, he wanted my boots. First my flight jacket, with "Bobby" embroidered over the left front pocket and now my comfortable boots. This was really too much. You can't take a man's boots! Well, he did. He had a very complicated looking machine pistol. He took the small inner heated boots and left the large unwieldy outer shells. I managed to call him every name I knew, and his mother also. He didn't know English but without question he caught the gist of my comments. With his low voice I barely heard, "Komen Sie heir." And this was the beginning of Bobby Longo's solitary confinement.
it was a small room. A concrete naked gray side-attached unit to the main building. Here I sat on a steel bunk (which was hanging by chains attached to the wall) without my jacket and without my boots. Alone, I observed I certainly wasn't the first to sit here pondering the luck that placed me in this tiny chamber. It was good luck that I was alive and not disfigured or wounded. It was bad fortune that I was captured after being shot down. This vault couldn't have been more stark or bleak if that was my host's scheme, which I do not believe. I regarded it as simply utilitarian, to serve their purpose with no intent at malice. The chamber couldn't have been larger than a walk-in closet, a square about five feet by five feet. The walls were stark and unadorned except for the autographs written and scraped onto its gray unwashed surface. The ceiling had to be ten feet away offering no chance of escape. That is, even if a human could get through the single window in it which was about ten' inches wide. When the sun poured through it, a shaft of light would form strange shapes against the sides of my cell; a dappled pattern upon concrete.
When it was dark, in my cell, it was only in my imagination. It was lighted with a semi-burned out smoldering green hued incandescent naked bulb. Dangling from a frayed wire it cast eerie images upon the walls and ceiling. It was not a frosted glow but a anorexic filament stretching across the interior of the clear glass; as some long legged spider glowing brightly. The bulb had no 'on/off' switch on my side of the wall and the white phosphorescent spider played shadow games all through the night. It was a dream vacation come to life.
However, this room was to be mine alone for the next two and a half days. Solitary felt as if it might as well have been ten years. I was left with my thoughts and I thought about everything. I thought about my life, my future, my prospect for a future. What path took me to this distinct possibility of death and what would become of rne? I didn't think too lightly of this. This present dilemma was a very serious life and death situation, a very intricate state of circumstance. As the Sicilians say, "I was in one hell of an Imbroglio." These German bastards did not place me in the highest esteem. I was bombing their cities and killing their people and trying to end their form of government. I was in the heart of Germany, in the middle of a German barracks, totally alone. I was not in an envious position. They could make me `disappear' and no one would ever find me. My youth and bravado kept me in a 'piss and vinegar' frame of mind but somewhere underneath it all, sure I was afraid. I had never been in a situation as this. All this was a new world for me. Just another opportunity, in rapid succession, for me to become tired, fatigued, frightened and wondering, "What the hell am I doing?"
So soon to be placed in solitary after being captured is a very sad thing. This was the time I needed companionship and moral support more than anytime in my life. I heard no news of my crew, while here, and I could only guess my fate. I was a prisoner in a foreign country that we were bombing. They could do as they liked with me and there was nothing I or anyone could do, to stop that. I felt hopeless and my anxiety increased as I read the scratches on the walls. Former guests here had marked their stays by signatures etched into the mortar. I was merely one in a long line of occupants. If I had a pencil I couldn't have written my name, there was no space left. The walls and even the ceiling were one complete carpet of scratches and names. I didn't think I would be here forever but I was filled with pride and doubt when I came to the autograph, of one Army Captain. He had lain here, stood here, sat here fifty-seven days. Fifty seven days in this hole. I didn't know his crime or attitude. Maybe he got to keep his boots, maybe he died here? I never knew his name but to me he was a great anonymous hero. if he could survive that many days I had to be brave and tough it out, too. He left me with feelings of hope. I have thought of him often through the years. When things got bad, I thought about his strength and how `easy' I had it. The Captain must have refused more than just his capture. He must have been the real genuine article. With sadness, I shall never know who he was, but I trust he is well and safe.
With me was my tiny musette bag which we called our 'escape kit'. I never knew what it contained until the German `interrogation officer' went through it. It was just a bag of unknown contents. Something never to be given much thought about, until the German dumped its ingredients on the table, in front of me. He had found nothing of incriminating value or of dangerous nature.
Pointing to a stick of chewing gum he asked, "vas ist?"
I said, "Gum, what'd think it was?"
"Und vas do you do for the Amerikans?"
"I don't do nothing at all and who gives a fart
anyway," I said smoothly.
Tired of my answers to his questions of gum, toothpaste, soap, chocolate and toilet paper he allowed my to keep these trinkets, with me. I should have gone through the kit before. I should have paid attention to it in training lectures. When I bit into the stick of gum, it contained a shortened hacksaw blade. It was of great use to me, the cell had no bars and I had chipped a tooth.
Lunch was as unappetizing as supper appeared, so I didn't partake of the fare. In fact, I didn't eat the first day. And where were my Wheaties? How could I fight the bad guys and save the world without the "Breakfast of Champions"? I did not eat most of the second day but then hunger became so convincing that bread and water would have tasted like roast beef and wine. That was not to be the case. What I was brought was a dented metal cup half filled with a vile looking watery hot liquid which passed itself as soup du jour. Jutting from this broth was a rusty steel spoon.. As soon as Otto, my guard, turned his back I threw the spoon on the floor and ravenously drank the soup. Actually, more than drinking I slurped it. I slurped it all in one continuous guzzle. It was salty and peppery with leaves of cabbage floating in a sea of grease and oil. And then I gazed at that rusted metal spoon. I retrieved it and with its handle I scratched my name, on the floor. It had been worn blunt, and I then knew it had been the author, of many works, in concrete. I wrote over the autograph of someone who had etched the floor previously to me. I was merely evicting him. I had left my name for posterity. Bobby Longo had become part of history and written his name in the sands of time.
The click of the cell lock was loud and echoed in my head after hearing virtually nothing for almost three days. Again I wondered with awe how 'the Captain', could last here fifty-seven days. The large German motioned, with his hand, to follow. I was led to a larger room with wood benches. I was due for another question and answer session. It would be more of the usual in a well rehearsed play that I had been practicing. They asked the questions and I got to lie.
There were two soldiers present in this room. The younger whom appeared to be a lieutenant of some type asked, "How vas your plane brought down?"
I quickly and without thinking answered, "Ack ack!"
"Und vas ist zis, how you might say, `ack ack'?"
I said, "Ack-ack ...ack-ack, you know ack-ack!", and I made gestures of big guns shooting at airplanes with accompanying air bursts, of flak. "Big guns, eighty-eight's, eighty-eight's!"
"vas?", he asked again, his eyebrows at full arch.
"You know, antiaircraft fire," I answered again.
"Ah! ack-ack", the German officer smiled through his eyes pretending he knew this American acronym all along. "Ah, ja! Ja, ja, ack-ack! I know dis zing very gute!" I wanted to clip him one. I was like a bull and he was waving a red flag in front of my eyes. It was as though he were giving me no choice.
After replying, to this question, a few more times they seemed quite comfortable with this solution. And so was I. I had lied to them and given them misleading intelligence. Perhaps their planes and their artillery might be moved just the slightest degrees against future B-24 sorties. If this adjustment in stratagem saved the lives or mission of just one crew, I would be thankful to God. In the scheme of things and this War, maybe that's just what was needed? A shift in just a few degrees would cure the world's woes.
"Where do you come from?", asked an unfamiliar voice above a captain's uniform. The other officer spoke for the first time, with a face of indifference and boredom.
"Where do you think I come from, I was shot down? I'm an American," I responded, somewhat pissed off.
"Nein, where does your family come from?", he further pressed, showing his command of excellent English.
I said, " My family comes from Sicily."
He shook his head and muttered, "That is a very poor country."
All I could retort was, so what?" with that he stood and motioned for me to leave, my interrogation was at an end. Also, at an end was my isolation. And I can justifiably say that leaving it behind was a big, `good riddance'.
Walking through the humid barracks I was glad to think, "So long to bad trash." It was virtually barren of soldiers and was very austere in adornment. It was merely functional and only one degree above my personal cell. I was brought to the railroad siding on which I had arrived. It was vacant and empty; it may as well have been in a ghost town. I was quite comfortable sitting and resting on a wood and metal bench, in the shade of an overhanging roof. The air never appeared so rare and valuable, to me, before this. Space was a precious commodity, to me now, after coming from that tiny gray room. I could stretch my arms without hitting anything and I could speak without hearing an echo. I watched the train tracks disappear into the scenery and I felt a different type of freedom. I was, of course, still a prisoner but I had rid myself of that tiny room. I had divested myself of loneliness. My guard offered me a 'zigarette' and we made small talk. What it was, I don't remember now. I am sure it was the talk of all people of all times; all small talk is the same. "How's your family, what is your country like, do you like good beer?" "Deutschland bier ist the best, ja?".
Again, I was to ride the German railroad. I was on a steam train to Frankfurt. The carriage, in which I was seated, was almost opulent after my boxcar filled with sardines. It was as if I had my own private car, and I almost did. That is, I was the only POW on this old but well maintained coal burning train. Of course, all the newer engines and carriages would be in Russia, or Poland, or on one of the other 'fronts'. Instead of transporting civilians or POWs they would be hauling and toting armaments and fighting men. The car to which I was presently acquainted had seats and benches. Some were clad in leather, some with upholstery. Some with both in an intricate weaving serpentine pattern. I felt out of place amongst the civilians within. Me with my personal guard and ragged appearance; and them with their suits, ties and fancy gabardine luggage. They had wrist watches and I had handcuffs. Even a few women were aboard dressed to the nines. I thought they were the upper crust, the elite of Germany; executives commuting to work. Never had I seen anything as this riding the train out of Pawcatuck, Connecticut toward New London, Connecticut. This was high class stuff, all right. And suddenly, at once, as if on silent command, all the gabardine luggage opened. Out came their Spartan lunches of bread, cold sausages, cheese and homemade wine. They were refugees traveling with all their possessions, on their body, brown bagging it. They were victims fleeing from our B-24's last target. At last, proof our accuracy and determination. Our bombs were striking targets and making families take to the roads and rails but never without their rations or lunches. It is said that an army travels on its stomach. If that is true, than civilians must be said to move with equal nourishment and mobility.
The rail journey came to a chugging halt. Along the way, many of the passengers had departed into undistinguished sidings and small villages. In between stops the countryside was of neat conformity. It could have been Connecticut except for the German Army vehicles and troops, in gray uniforms, which seemed to be always on the move. The contour of the land began to smooth as we neared the sea.
My guard urged me off the train, at its last station. We had arrived at a large port. It was a mixture of oil, fish, war and civilians. I was led to a long wooden pier buttressed with columns of concrete and good German steel. I was no longer a lone captive, I had reached what appeared to be the hive of POW activity. Everywhere I saw American prisoners, and most were from air crews. I didn't quite feel at home but I felt better to be among my own.
After a quick exchange of paperwork I was `transferred' to a small group of soldiers sitting on the dock. Shortly, an order in German was heard and our guards prompted us to our feet. In single file, in hand cuffs and leg irons, we awkwardly crossed a gangplank, to a ship, at anchor. She was dark gray with petroleum stains along her hull. I was awaiting my turn as the column of men disappeared beneath the deck. They were vanishing through a hatch that could accept only one at a time. It would be a while before I would see or smell daylight again. Soon it was my turn to go below.
It was the longest ladder in the world. It disappeared into the dark abyss somewhere beyond my vision, descending deeper and deeper into the bowels of the ship. I heard the creaking of hull and the sharp cadence of foot leather upon steel rungs and decks. I felt more than heard the loud murmurs of two thousand prisoners of war. Downward I climbed into their midst and smell. All was black except for the naked glow of unshielded light bulbs thrusting their glimmer through this-teeming confusion. Even the German guards appeared bewildered in their distraction but I knew their perplexed looks were only bored stares of true professional hit men. They knew exactly what they were doing at each moment. These were not older gentlemen veterans of World War I. Rather they were combat wounded pissed off and annoyed soldiers of World War II. They were slightly disabled or were doing their convalescing aboard this transport ship. Some were hard core and couldn't wait to get back to the `front'. The others were merely hard core. Nothing would ever happen on their watch. It was their duty to deliver their charges and this they would accomplish whether we were alive or dead. If the numbers leaving equaled the numbers arriving, breathing or not, everything was hunky-dory in their world. The smoking lamp was definitely not lighted.
The oil tanker had been altered, just a little, to become a floating penitentiary. Some of the oil had been removed to allow accommodations, for transport, of POWs. Besides the odor of human waste and sweat the air was filled with the sweet smell of diesel fuel. The black gold coated the cold metal interior with a film that could never be washed clean. Everything I touched left a greasy memory attached to my clothing. Nothing would ever rust in this soured cradle of humanity.
The Germans allowed their polite modesty to affect our toilet habits. No open shipboard latrines for us. We had the most modern of seagoing facilities. In their Teutonic structured way they had erected rows of wood outhouses. Row after row in a straight line; scores of outhouses. Outhouses indoors. They even had roofs as if they were expecting inclement weather. All that were missing were Sears Roebuck Catalogues and half-moons carved through the doors. I didn't have to use the `facilities' provided by the sanitation engineers. Some of the guys defecated in their pants, others used buckets. I never had to `go'. Maybe I was lucky, every time I got moved my bowels didn't. I was always constipated on every one of my trips.
Again, it was a five day trip. If I ever prayed it was in that dark hold beneath the water line. I got on my knees and prayed that the American or British submarines would have lousy hunting, in the seas, off Germany. They had no way of knowing that I was deep in the bottom of this floating leviathan. One torpedo would collapse the walls, of this oil tanker, like a paper toy. We were a slow sitting duck. A perfect target for the Allies. They would be searching for an easy mark such as an unescorted ship carrying oil. I was an airman. I wasn't supposed to be under the waves getting lined up, in the cross hairs of a submarine. I felt inundated with a powerful fear of complete helplessness. I dreamed that I was going down, with the ship, handcuffed to the deck. I couldn't wait to become safe and sound in a prisoner of war camp. After five days of tossing and spinning, in the seas and rivers near the German coast, after five nights of nightmares filled with American submarines, I got my wish.
Five days I spent in that lousy stinking tanker. We started in the North Sea and were `sent up the river' to Scwinemunda. It exemplified the old expression. I certainly was on my way to prison and this was the patty wagon.
The boat docked after the trip from Heydekrug. And that is where I first laid eyes upon the Captain with the red hair. That red haired bastard was a real son-of-a-bitch., A psychopath manifesting aggressive behavior sprinkled with touches of genuine criminality. He made us sleep in the open for a couple of nights just on general meanness. It was June, 1944 but the weather was cool, bringing with it a dampness that permeated from and through the ground. We had only thin clothes, to lay upon the earth, on which to sleep. It had to be more than two miles to our point of destination; Stalagluft 6. The captured two thousand were segregated into two groups. I was in the second. The first was lucky. They got to walk to our new confinement area. The second group was handcuffed and in leg chains. We had to do a forced run. There was a third group if imagination was stretched in its employment. Later in the day solitary and pairs of POW's began arriving to begin their run. It didn't matter how many were on the team already, everyone had to try out.
I had been saving little odds and ends since leaving solitary. These items were comprised of such things as a piece of bread, a scrap of meat, and any leftovers I could pocket without spoilage. I had decided that I would have one hell of a fine meal once I reached my camp, of confinement. From my pocket I had transferred all my pillage to a small cloth sack. All prisoners were given this bag for their modest but personal possessions. Although not large or cumbersome this bag became a hindrance when it came to jogging. The German's were about to ruin my chance for a gastronomic satisfaction that was to occur, in the near future.
Mac and I were handcuffed to one another. We were best friends but this was overdoing the bonding. We had lost everything except those small sacks resting at our feet. Otherwise, we had only the clothes that were on our backs and my rags were getting tattered and were covered with blood and dirt and foul odors. I think that the smell was the strongest part of my possessions. It certainly would outlast the other real-estate I owned.
"All you swine up! Up you Schweinhunds and Run! Run! Run you swine!", came the sudden exacting orders from the Kraut guards.
As one, as a many legged creature we arose and started walking with a start. We were not willing to debate these despotic figures regarding their rendition of the code of military conduct.
"Run, vordamnt, run! You vill all run, schnell, schnell!" A German major with a breast festooned with medals seemed to be damn anxious, to have us sprint. He had a black patch covering his left eye and it was little doubting this guy was wearing a souvenir, from the Russian front. This was the type of intimidator, that when he tells you to run, you really start to run. His hair was a white blond and it was slicked back, although cropped short and neat. From that point on Major Gruber became forever known to us as, Hollywood!
They were upon us. Pushing and pulling and kicking. We were only so much of an inconvenience to them. Things that could be shoved and punched without any form of reprisal. I felt helpless realizing the entity of our situation. We were all indeed defenseless. Far away from home, captured and at the total whim of these criminal bastards. We were all helpless but being together, in this, it gave all a certain strength. If we blinked, it was wrong. If we veered left or right, it was a sin. Every movement was an error. We couldn't do anything correctly and that was their deadly intention, as I later discovered.
It was hot and the woods, along side the road, was covered in a mist of heat. My breathing quickened as I began a slow trot. My breath went out in gasps and the hard packed gravel squeaked, under the weight of my body, running over it. The guards were everywhere, straddling the route, turning it into a gauntlet. Should Mac and I make a break for the forest? I decided against it as there were too many Germans and all of us were in this together.
I saw a POW slip, and a guard was upon him instantly. The guard struck the GI full, in the small of his back, with the butt of his rifle. He collapsed with his hands flailing behind his broken spine. If he ever lived through this he would never walk upright again.
Those too slow were also treated to the sharp bite of the bayonets. Unarmed and unshielded we were merely a long line of two legged targets. Where was the Geneva Convention now? I looked ahead and started to run even faster. A vile tiding awakened in the early dawn and began its depraved gossip before good advice put its clothes on.
"Drop your stuff, drop your stuff!", I kept yelling to Mac hustling beside me, between searches for air. "Do you want to get stuck?", I impatiently enlightened him again. "Hurry up! Damn it. It's hard to talk and run! Come on Mac."
Only moments earlier I had thrown my burden to the side of the road. Any impedance, any hesitation might cause me to lag, to stick out, to not keep up in the race. What good were a few cans of milk and a piece of cloth compared to getting my rear kicked in? There were no rules here, only the deprived sense of German superiority. An omniscient ego keener than the most honed of bayonets.
Whomp! "Hier's ein fur Berlin!" Smack! "Hier ist ein fur Hamburg!" The Kraut guards were punishing us for bombing their cities. They were taking it personally and they were giving it to us, in person. "Hey, I wasn't on that raid over Hamburg!" Crunch!
"Ein fur Schwinefort! You Luftgangsters, run! Swinehundt von Hell, run!"
Later, I was told, that these guards were hand picked by the Red Haired Kaptain. They were hand picked not for their bravery or good conduct but because they had all lost homes or relatives to our bombers. If I had known that, before hand, I would have been running like a Thanksgiving turkey. I was scared, all right, but if I were thinking correctly I would have been seriously frightened. They had lost homes and families and something more. They had lost their minds.
We had the young bucks running along side us with their bayonets at full tilt. They were the elite of the German Navy and they were here to prove how much better they were than we. They were the German Marines, all young perfectly conditioned Aryan giants running in training cadence. Their sanity had been equally conditioned. They were evil incarnate following the depraved leadership of the Red Haired Kaptain. Anytime a POW slowed a Marine would jab him, in the ribs or in the rear, with the point of a bayonet. It hurt like hell and it was equally humiliating. They were hoping that some of us couldn't make the run so they could use them as an example. And by example I mean they wanted to use some POWs as pincushions. The POW next to me, at last, threw his burlap sack upon the ground. And the Red Haired Kaptain just rode alongside the column, in his black Mercedes, and smiled. He would have to search for other animals to torture.
The Red Haired Kaptain was the one with the loudest voice. He kept yelling, "Use your bayonets, use your bayonets!" A German soldier does many things well and what he does best of all is to obey orders, especially from a kaptain. And specially from a dedicated, thoroughly dedicated, kaptain. So, in a military sense they were only following orders. In a deeper evaluation they were given free rein to do what they loved, to do. Inflict harm to a fellow human being.
On this run we first met another German of consequence. We immediately nicknamed him, Big Stoop. He was large and dull in manner and action. He gained his rank through the usual channels; unbridied stupidity with an equal attention to obeying orders. Big Stoop was the Red Haired Kaptain's henchman. Big Stoop kept the Marines in line. Sergeant Stoop was allowed to smile back at the Red Haired Kaptain.
Feldweble Schmidt vas Stoop. Feldweble is the German word for sergeant but as many things German, the word was self important and harsh. He was huge and well fed. Overly sated to almost the point of exceeding the limit of his six foot seven inch frame. To augment his Kraut rations he would pilfer the POWs' scant food supply. There was not a charitable ounce in his corpulent body but there was an abundance of pure sadistic behavior, flavored with petty larceny. I am sure he would have stolen anything of value, we had, but our wealth came only in tin cans. Hell, he took what he could carry, of these, anyhow. We didn't have much but he saw to it that we had less.
POWs were lagging and some were falling. In each case a Marine was there to inflict more hardship and pain. In some instances the pain was the result of broken limbs and bleeding skulls. The prone, some unconscious, bodies were tossed as potato sacks onto flat bed trucks. They were merely heaped upon one another when the truck became over crowded. I felt helpless and more bitter than I had ever felt, in my life. What was their right to do this? They started the War. They weren't supposed to do this stuff to us! Didn't they know that we were going to defeat them?
As I ran up the road I passed line after line of trees that were girdling the run. Every so often I ventured that I could make an escape but thought against it. Something told me not to do it; perhaps an inner voice? I thought I imagined dark shapes in the woods, sometimes a dim reflection. What were these phantom shapes in a deserted forest? My mind was playing tricks as my lungs fought for air. I was seeing things that weren't real.
The Scwinemunda, "Run up the Road", was about three kilometers or just short of two miles. I was in good shape but not good enough for a two mile run, in the heat, getting poked with bayonets. Somehow I made it and now look fondly back at that romp through the German forest. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was like taking my dog for a run through the park. Only it was not my park and those dogs would bite you in the rear if you were too slow, or God forbid, fall down.
We later learned that the Red Haired Kaptain was Kaptain Walter Pickhardt. They didn't come much meaner or chauvinistic than this bastard. He could have been Hitler's cousin and this could have been his personal war. A `mom and pop' war and he was stocking shelves. He was putting in long hours of overtime, to impress his parents, with his work ethics.
And the dim forms in the forest I thought I had imagined? They were too real to even exist on the face of this good Earth. So real, that they had the power to destroy and snatch existence from my being. All I had been through, up to now, had only served to place me in the center of a very real and murderous ambush.
They must have been spawned in the Devil's own loin, or from Kaptain Walter Pickhardt's tryst with some visitor from Hell. All along, "The Run", he had hidden camouflaged machine gun emplacements. He had given orders to shoot, to kill, any leaving the road. And that is why he ordered his Marines to bayonet and punch us, and run us to desperation. He hoped that many, if not all of us, would make a break into the woods. It would be a short dash, into the mouth of mechanized death. He had set a trap for premeditated murder. This to Prisoners of War. This to us in protective custody; negating regard for the rules of the Geneva Convention. May Kaptain Pickhardt rot in Hell, the dirty bastard! Heil Hitler!
We arrived at the gates of Stalagluft 6 ex hausted. Ironically, I wanted to get inside which would stop this running business. Inside we would get some food and water. What we got was the Red Haired Kaptain. He immediately conjured and shouted up a storm and tirade from his raised platform. Looking down upon us literally as well as socially he pompously gloated. After swearing and cursing and yelling vile venomous invectives, at individuals in our aggregate, the first thing he vas going to do was di vide our assemblage. Crews and bomber groups would be separated. All we had now were friend ships and these he wanted to destroy with division. This was the first and one of the most critical deci sions we protested. Splitting us, the Red Haired Kap tain would be engendering a break in our morale and would show us that he was not to be underestimated. Within minutes of arriving in our new accommoda tions overseas we had started a near riot. In no way were we going to take this insult on top of being POWs. We would not be parted from the groups we had joined with, gone through boot camp with, and been shot down with. Enough was enough! Protest was our only commodity. We yelled, we screamed and in the end we prevailed. And from the start we pissed off the Red Haired Kaptain and Sergeant Stoop.
We were remembered and not only by the German elite. Our own remembered us as well. After, "The Run", British bombers were overhead every night for a week. Our barracks shook and even with the shutters closed, a well enforced rule, flames of burning buildings could be seen in the distance. Often the space between the camp and the exploding bits and pieces of German villages was really too uncomfortably near for pleasant dreaming. Our B-24's had bombed Switzerland. We knew what one small gust of wind, one slip in a mathematical navigation formula, one lapse of concentration could do. It could put a bomb right down our barracks' chimney; that's what it could do. We believed that the Allies had found out about, "The Run", and that this was a dire warning to the Germans. And this was a very strong morale boaster, for us POWs. That is, if they kept, those `block busters' at more than arms length.
Those that had been assaulted, those that were thrown onto the flatbed, were demanding medical treatment. Some were unconscious and others were really banged up and looked like the broken bodies they had became. They had to be almost dead or crippled to get a ride, to the Stalag, rather then finish, "The Run". In typical fashion we came to know what was German policy regarding POWs. The injured waited for medical attention. In the Vorlager or courtyard beyond the wire was the prison's medical dispensary. It was here that the injured were deposited. The German doctor, Kaptain Sommers, gave the wounded a cursory, "I have better things to do with my time!", examination. Hauptman Sommers diagnosed the victims with professionalism and care. His diagnosis was, "Sunstroke." Sunstroke must have been his pet project. You would think that he would have become exhausted being correct and never wrong. Just giving all those high and mighty orders would have tried me out. Later, he would diagnose over two hundred dog and bayonet wounds as sun stroke. After, "The Run", he refused assistance to those that apparently were deathly allergic to the sun.
Behind the Vorlager and to the rear of the clinic, in the forest, was the cemetery. It was for the POWs. It was reserved for us; it was for the unlucky. It became unlucky for many of our peers. It was a place for the broken in body and spirit. A final cure for illness and deprivation. A place where the beatings stopped and the sickness and hunger ceased. Some were placed here with their souls crying to live. They did not want to die; they were so young and were cheated out of their future. Then there were those that opted for this place of rest. They chose it over cruelty and cold and the starvation. They chose a type of semi-resigned suicide. They were the ones that climbed the fence in daylight. They were the ones that defied the guards. For some, they were thought the lucky ones.
The stark bleakness of the Stalag was overpowering. It consisted of many one story buildings separated by intersecting paths all at perfect right angles. It was a village made of POWs with a German commandant as its mayor and despot. Completely surrounded by wire fences and barbed wire we were under total surveillance, around the clock, by armed guards and manned machine gun towers. Here a trespass, against the rules, meant solitary confinement or worse. This `worse' could come in the form of killer attack dogs or deadly gun shots, from above. The German shepherds were vicious and once on the scent would alert the entire compound with loud barks and growls. They were ever vigilant for the wayward POW that wasn't where he was supposed to be while the Doberman's were silent with uncontaminated touches of evil. They barbarically had their vocal cords removed in order that their barking would not expose their approach, to any unwary truant. The Shepherds would attach themselves to the legs and arms, holding their victim, until the soldiers arrived amidst great shouting and the earsplitting of sirens. The Dobermans would anonymously announce the attack with their rapid quiet padding of paws and a perverse kind of wheezing; but by then it was too late. They were taught to kill, without guilt, remorse or question. They were trained to lunge for the throat and crush it. When a Doberman's handler caught up with his charge it was too late for another renegade POW.
Stalag is the German word for prison. Stalagluft is their word for a prison which held enemy air crews. According to the Geneva Convention rules captives had to be segregated. Officers in their own camp and enlisted men in others. Flyers in one and ground troops in yet another. English prisoners could not be held with Americans and vice versa. It never made much sense, to me, since we were all guests of the German Army's hospitality. Maybe officers got more food, I don't know? My entree, each day, was a small cube of tough meat and one or two small potatoes. The flesh was about one inch by one inch. The potatoes were about the same in dimensions. Naturally, there were regular rations of cabbage or sour kraut. Thank God for the Red Cross parcels. Without them we might have starved. One for us and nine for the Germans. That was their math but at least we got that ten percent which helped keep us from starvation.
One of my favorite meals was soup du jour. Everyday it was the same. A type of cabbage soup with the camp's garbage tossed in for flavor. Its color was on no color chart but certainly on the gray scale.
This soup came with a small slice of broken bread. Nothing but the best being left over from the German African Campaign. It must have been a year or two old and covered with mold. We got it because it was unfit for human consumption, that is, German soldier's consumption. It was the soup that was the centerpiece for mealtime. I never saw so many worms in my life. They were white and stringy, some being obese. The soup was always swimming in white maggots. They were dead, of course, after being boiled so they weren't too repulsive to get down. And this is how, I learned to eat with my eyes always closed.
I became very self sufficient and occupied while in their Stalags. I got to be quite handy. Obtaining, through stealth, a length of hard wire and bending it I fashioned a crocheting needle. Gathering old and worn sweaters, often with holes, I would unravel them and gather the yarn in balls. Tying the short lengths together I crocheted many sweaters, including two for myself. I always crocheted never learning to knit. I made many hats from the scavenged wool. They were close cut in the Swedish style but they were warm. And the work was satisfying, in a camp that had little enough of that to go around.
Klim cans were the tin can of choice. Everything came in these cans, from flour to peaches. They were like condensed milk containers of today. Except they had a removable metal strip, or band, encircling the top. With these used tins or cans I constructed pans and in turn baked cakes and breads. With Red Cross flour and whatever I could beg or borrow I made a concoction called, `ice box cake'. This cake was the real thing, all right. In comparison to our situation, it was the greatest magic trick under the 'big top', inside our three ring circus.
Beating the metal into shape, with seams, was the real trick. I even made a cigarette case. And a coffee cup, with a handle! The cigarette cases were quite ingenious. I would remove the bands, from the Klim cans, and weave them into cases. Everyone had to have one, for we all learned to smoke in the Stalags This talent was a good source of income, for me; an income of nicotine and tar. Boredom drove me to inhale for thirteen months.
The Krauts had supplied the barracks with tiny stoves. Certainly not enough to turn the barracks into a sauna but enough to keep us alive. Even the cold was an enemy seeking to slay the POWs. The frigid air stealthily crawled on its stomach and sneaked under the doors and through the windows and flowed in any crack, in our warmth. All to bring a sufficient misery to our grim existence. The stoves came without piping or chimney. What good was a wood stove without a flue? If we opened a window, to let the smoke out, it would allow the cold to enter with the unrelenting wind. What to do? A desperate situation called for an ingenious solution. We made chimneys from Klim cans. Attached together by hammering, beating and using bands; a pipe took form. It made for a functional, if not aesthetic, vent. I owe my survival, in part, to the machinations of the simple milk can.
At any time, I might have up to fifty packs of cigarettes. It began after my mother sent a few to me. They were widely spaced and far in between but still we would get mailings from home. Cigarettes were used as money in the camp. Money did us little good so we bartered for everything, and tobacco was our currency. One could buy extra food or soap or clothing with tobacco. I was a wealthy man. Poker was the number one pastime and cigarettes were the ante. I got to be quite good at gambling. We used a deck of cards made from discarded packages of Players, a British cigarette brand. I was damn lucky at poker. I had so many cigarettes that when I ran out of toilet paper I used the paper from the wrappers. If the wrappers were massaged enough, in the hands, the paper became quite soft and pliant. I piled them in neat little rectangular stacks. It was like I wiped my rear with twenty dollar bills. I had so many Players papers that I had to tape them under my arm. Raising my arm could be uncomfortable as well as painful because the tape would tug at the hair in my armpit. I was walking around the camp with `gold' and I had to hide it, protect it. Yes, I gambled with toilet paper and wound up with gold.
I was not the only POW that practiced Arts & Crafts. We all had lots of time and we all wanted to waste it. Captivity is not good for animal or man but at least we had the luxury of trying, to relieve our boredom and making something useful while we were at it. Some made cakes, some made hats and some made radios to listen to War news. We seemed to be ahead but we were sitting on the bench, in Krautland. I made cigarette cases while some took up more artistic endeavors. I was in awe of the POW that made a working violin. It was an instrument of real genuine beauty. I hope he still has it or perhaps the rumor is true, that it is in a POW museum, an exhibit to a captive ingenuity and talent.
How they got through the German censors is one of the unfathomable mysteries in my life. 'They' were a small pair of scissors. I couldn't believe that tiny set of shears when I opened my bundle, from home. They were sitting right on top, in plain view, cradled in a layer of tissue. Scissors! What a gift to receive. I entrusted them to a crewman that had been a barber before the war. From that day on I always had an admirable haircut as did the rest of our Stalag. I didn't receive payment, or expect any, for my loan of this priceless tool. Every prisoner deserved to look his best. We didn't have plans to go dancing but it was nice to know we were ready.
I had two jobs while I was in this Stalag. First, I
got to peel spuds. Tons of potatoes I must have peeled. It was just like pulling KP in the Army. My hands became water logged from the juices leaking out of the skinned tubers. At least I got to work in the kitchen where it was good to be warm in the colder months. My second occupation was even better. I got to lug large buckets of warm water. These I carried from the mess hail to wherever they were needed. Sometimes warm water was needed in the barracks, sometimes for the shower and sometimes for laundry. This gave me a certain amount of mobility and I had all the hot water I desired. It further yielded me time to play a few hands of poker around the compound.
The first time I gave a second thought about the fence was when I was leaning upon it. It wasn't an actual lean but more of a touch.
"Hey wing nut, get the hell away from that wire," shouted one of my fellow internees. I jumped away not knowing what I had done wrong, if anything.
"Goof ball! Don't you know they can shoot you for that?"
He pointed to one of the nearer guard towers and I saw the occupant looking at me through his binoculars. By just the hint of slightest movement or by my intuition I knew he had just put down his Mauser. I detected a hint of a grin.
The tall fence snaked around the entire compound enclosing it like a metallic ribbon around a cherished prize. Every hundred feet or so a guard tower was a thirty foot vertical bastion of armed sharp shooters. We christened them goon boxes. I perceived them more as'snipers just waiting for someone to flub up. There was another parallel streak of wire chasing the fence. This belt was comprised of anything they could get their mitts on. It was concertina wire, barbed wire, razor wire and what looked to be glass and cut up steel drums along with yesterday's trash. To ever get that far, one first had to get over the primary fence and then outrun the bullets and the dogs. I only viewed it from afar.
I was always careful to avoid the barrier. That's why I was particularly irritated one afternoon while out for a stroll. I was walking near the fence and this crazy guard starts screaming and pointing his gun at me. Pointing and screaming in return I shouted, "Why the hell are you waving that gun at me? Wave it the other way, damn it!" I was just off on a promenade and he has to give me his attitude. "Wave it the other way or I'll stick it up your zygole." Who did he think he was, Hitler?
The Krauts opened the doors, to our barracks, at seven AM. We were then allowed to exit and wash up or go to the head. Early one morning one of our people got a case of the GI trots, or diarrhea. instead of using one of the many pans, inside the quarters, he raced outside to use the latrine. He was only a few moments ahead of the German's schedule. This soldier's crime was that he didn't want to soil a pan but rather use the equally squalid facilities of a hole, in the dirt. I heard the sharp crack of the rifle and there he was; face down in the yard, pants around his knees and a bullet through the back of his skull. And the Red Haired Kaptain smiled when Sergeant Stoop gave orders to clean up the mess.
Our latrines were outside the barracks so the smell, at minimal, would not be overpowering. They served us better, in the winter, for their odor was more bearable but never gone. Also, their wood paneling could be confiscated for the cause. The 'cause', being our wood burning pot bellied stoves.
Most POWs smoked and this trait took the form of a bizarre ritual, in the latrines. The facilities had as many as forty holes. The holes were cut into long benches. There were ten on each side wall and twenty back to back, right down the center. Of course, the structure was always occupied with a number of POWs. And it was dark inside this place of necessity. I smoked, inside this sacred place, to send out a beacon. Without this warning device, some GI with diarrhea, would be in such a hurry, that he might just sit upon a darkened form. A cigarette's glowing end was the sign for, "Occupied".
Nine months I slept on the floor. I'm not complaining, the rest of the time spent in German camps I had a cot. Nine months out of thirteen I had it 'easy' sleeping on the deck. The concrete or wood or dirt floors, depending upon the camp or my recent misdemeanor, I could soften. I did this by accumulating all the straw I could amass through stealth or theft. I piled it on the floor and threw my clothes and other rags atop it. I had it 'light' after hearing what some of the other branches of the American military were getting. The Germans were fond of enemies that dropped things out of the sky on their heads and cities. I mean this in all sincerity. It was a respect given to our branch of the military. Yet, still I have dreams that I am sleeping in a horse barn. I wonder why that could be?
We had a jury-rigged shower in the middle of the courtyard. It consisted of a one-hundred and eighty liter metal tank hoisted upon some two by fours. A hose was fitted at the side which allowed the water to drizzle out. This was a fine arrangement in warm weather and advantaged us the removal of grime and dirt. It was quite a luxury and we had to wait our turn. The shower regimen was so precious that one crazed lunatic continued his washing during an intense lightning storm. The barbed wire, surrounding the camp, danced with blue light. Saint Elmo's Fire was on a rampage and it served as a precursor to lightning. Two bolts almost hit the tank but our boy went right on as though he were back in Manhattan, in the Hotel Ritz. He knew, as well as everyone else in camp, that two POWs were recently struck by lightning. Both Canadians had been killed when the spike crashed through the roof, of their small huts, called `dog houses'. They had both died in their sleep during one of the many electric storms that transgressed that region of Germany. And still there he was lathering as though lightening could never hit the same place twice. Lathering as though he would miss his turn under the shower.
Our days and nights never varied. We had schedules and places to be at all times. We made the guard's lives miserable, just by their having to be there. And they had only to look, to us, to find a vent for their anger and frustration. They knew that the War was not going well for Germany. As our numbers grew, in the stockade, it foretold of an end to the `Third Reich'. Much of the time vas spent in roll call and standing in lines. God help the soldier that let one, in his charge, disappear in the night or between rolls. We were accountable items not unlike factory made objects that were assigned a number; and we were continually undergoing quality control inspections. It was, "Line up, line up, line up!", around the clock but naturally, in German. "Schnell, schnell, komin Sie heir! Into your lines or else you vill be punished! You kanst believe it to me!" And so passed thirteen months, not one year and one month, but thirteen months; surrounded by wire and guns. Always looking up, watching for our bombers. Always looking ahead, watching for the guards and dogs. Always waiting for the time when this hallucination would be behind me.
The guards were becoming nervous. Agitated might not be a strong enough adjective to describe their emotional state. The `front' was collapsing for the Germans and being pushed forward by the Russians. Now here was a tribe to fear, one that brought the imagination into high gear. Rumors and gossip about the `barbarians' made a strong wind that fanned the flames of trepidation. We Americans had heard wild tales of them. That they were ruthless and not capable of remorse or forgiveness. That they were uneducated farmers, desert nomads and agrarians that were protecting their motherland. They were intimate with war and had been at it a long time. We heard that the Russians had many axes to grind against the people of Germany.
And that ax is what the guards and the Germans feared. The Germans had attacked Russia without provocation or warning. They had shown no mercy as they attacked Stalingrad and Moscow. Women and children died defending their streets and cities. The Germans had treated the Russians as barbarians and now the barbarians were on the move. Cornered in Moscow and starving they had pushed the Germans back. They pushed so hard that they forced them out of their country, `Mother Russia'. They blew the German rail lines and put a strangle hold on their supplies. It was the coldest winter in a century and the Germans were caught off guard. The Russians were used to this cold, even though the freezing to death of thousands would indicate the opposite. So they pushed the invader out of the cold and vastness of Russia. But they did not stop there, they kept pushing and now were deep inside Germany. And they had a bill to collect, and there would be no more extensions on the loan.
They would exhibit no remorse upon the German soldier as they advanced towards Stalagluft number one. The worst of the worst came first. Outer Mongolia is located in Eastern Central Asia sandwiched between Russia and China. Contained within is the Gobi Desert. Here arbse fierce fighting men through many generations. Centuries before Columbus ever set foot upon a boat these people roamed all of Asia and parts of Europe. From here fought Ghengis Khan; perhaps the greatest world conqueror after Alexander the Great. And in World War II they still used relatively primitive ordinance. The Mongols used horse and wagons as their trucks to haul artillery. No two guns matched but they were rust free, coated with what I can only guess was bear grease. They rode mules and many couldn't read or write, most likely all. They were used to hardship and knew no limits. Scattered reports of civilians being murdered and raped, often both, were found to be true. Their history and customs seemed to permit, allow, and even suggest pillaging and ransacking. The Mongols were fighting to avenge their homeland but were also using the War for profit and for gain. As a defiant type of diversion from their harsh life, they were being entertained. What they wanted most was to filet German soldiers; officers in particular.
The Germans disappeared one by one and then in pairs and then in columns. They were fleeing 'the hoard'. The world's elite fighting force, the `master race' was running from nomads, from mules and wagons. Soon they were gone leaving little trace of their ever being here but for their structures and a few abandoned motor vehicles. We stayed; we were waiting for liberation by the Allies, of which Russia was one. On the heels of the Mongols, whom I suppose left for greater spoils of war, was the Regular Russian Army. Little more sophisticated than their predecessors they at least dressed smarter. In place of ragged furs and leather boots were ragged wool clothing and leather boots. Amid much singing and drinking they stayed only long enough to change their clothing. The 'comrades' used the camp for a 'way station', a convenient place to change into dry stockings. Socks liberated from the Germans; stolen from their dead and lifeless feet. The Mongols would simply line the 'donor' against a wall and blast 'em; thank you, very much! They were here and then in an eye blink they were gone. We prisoners were only a casual fleeting curiosity for them. We were nothing new to them except that we were Americans. in their harsh and mysterious way they had come and gone. We were alone to find our way home; through the chaos that was now Western Europe.
We later heard that the American First and Ninth armies made contact with forward Soviet units on April 25, 1945. There didn't seem to be much trust on either side. This foreshadowed political events leading to the piecemeal breakup, of Europe. The spoils of war were to be divided. The resultant cadres and factions presaged the 'Cold War'. We never saw it coming and if we did, we didn't give a damn. We were going home.
As for us, we welcomed the American Army with extremely open arms. I was never happier to see soldiers, in my life. There was much celebrating, handshaking and pats on the back.
All I could manage to say was, "where the hell have you guys been?"
Mac and I met again after our stint as POW's, racing around the country side and being relocated here and there but mostly `there'. We renewed our best of friendships and together terrorized France and the French women. As an ensemble of two we hit every cafe and wine joint in, that part of the country. We deserved it and so did they. We were again inseparable until I got my marching orders.
When the War ended, I was shipped back to the States. Of course, they sent me to a Naval town, Newport News, Virginia. I managed to fit right in. What a party town that was after the War. I took full advantage of all it had to offer, and that was plenty. It was night after night at the 'Boom Boom Room'. I had such a good time that I was next sent to Atlantic City, New Jersey to recuperate.
Now Atlantic City is the ideal oasis for an exPOW and wounded GI to make a full recovery. Every night became a huge party. Night after night for weeks on end, in fact. I guess I had the key to the city because someone somewhere wanted me to chaperone Miss Miami in the Miss America Pageant held there. What a doll! And she was good looking too. I was so pissed off because I couldn't do it. Can you believe I couldn't find a clean uniform?
However, I did manage to have a good time anyway. I met the cutest little thing from Pottstown, PA. I got to take her to the pageant and sit in the front row. She was an Army nurse that started to grow on me. When I headed home she rode with me, on the train, to Springfield, Massachusetts. I asked her, "What are you wasting your time with me for, you should go after a doctor or a lawyer?" Her answer
was that doctors love medicine and not women. I
have given that a lot of thought since I left her at the
train station, in Springfield. I don't know what it means but I have given it a lot of thought anyway.
The `limited' pulled into the westerly, Rhode Island train station just ,as the sun was setting and turning the sky pink. The sky. It had changed my life in many ways. It had been friendly and it had been harsh. It had been a cruel teacher sometimes and a painter of murals in others. The sky had taken me around the globe, to places I had never thought existed. It had taken me home to a new existence.
I walked to my mother's and father's house; my home. I was really home for the first time in years. And it was a thing that felt good. I was back for good. I could walk to the bathroom anytime I chose without getting shot. I could sit on the grass with the sun on my face without the dogs attacking. I was in the `Land of the Free' and it tasted good. And I helped make freedom possible, to endure, in this world. I felt real good and real proud. I was having a good day. Yes, I was going to have a good week, too.
It had been a long time since I had seen my brothers and sisters, and parents, and I was reduced to tears when I was blessed with all that good fortune in one overpowering moment. They were all there just as I had left them, so many moments in the past. So many events, and times, and circumstances, and situations had come and gone and we had survived. We were truly the winners because we had survived during the `time' of so much death and destruction worldwide. Here was my brother Joe returning from the battles in North Africa and Southern France. Frank had returned from Guadalcanal after fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Both were here and I was grateful for that above all else. We were not heroes. The heroes never got to return.
There is not much more lo say except that I finally got to ride, in that new car, through the streets of Pawcatuck. It wasn't mine and I wasn't driving. It was in a parade saluting the end of war in the Pacific, the end of war with Japan, the end of world war 11. I was a special guest of honor. I couldn't believe my good fortune. VJ Day was one happy event for Bobby. My mother made it even happier for me. More than the parade, more than the sparkling black Cadillac, more than parades and floats; my mother was there holding my hand. Mom knew I was coming home, and by God, she was right.
Years later, during each veteran's Day, my mother would laughingly chide, "Hey Bobby, I'm younger than you," my mother was fond of reiterating at every chance. She was born on leap year day and that made her only twenty-two and not eighty-eight. At that time, I never laughed out loud but rather I kept it inside as I used to as a little kid. I would turn my back to her and chuckle and smile to myself. I often choked on my food this way. And when I think on it now I still chuckle to myself.
So, I am writing to tell about my crew, and to start building some closure. And I am trying to make some kind of sense out of my involvement, in a war, so far away in time and distance. And I ,ant to explain all this to my grandchildren and put it into some kind of order. I want them to learn about my early life and my niche in history. That I fought to keep our country and world free of oppression. I want them to know that there really is a story behind the faded yellow photograph I carry, laminated, in my wallet. I have carried that photo for what seems forever. I want my blood to know why. That black and white group portrait is of another family I will never, never forsake. It is of my crew, in front of The Bad Penny. Those kneeling boys, with smiles on their faces, could be any crew in front of any B-24. Some died so very young and some are dying now, as the War fades into the past, and as the years pass. I want them to know our story and know the bravery of our generation and to let them know that many good boys died, to give future generations freedom. And that this story should never languish but should be remembered with tears for the dead.
Long ago, I promised myself that if I ever lived, if I ever survived the War, I wanted to tell about it. To describe what it was like and what I went through. I wanted to tell about the brave soldiers with whom I flew. Some came home, some did not. Most are tacit heroes, not speaking or choosing not to remember. There were so many air crews and so many airmen and so many stories. Literally thousands of individual histories. And yet, I never have seen any put to paper. It has taken me a long time to purge my soul. I trust that this humble manuscript is worthy enough to honor the memory of my fellow airmen.
Sometimes I feel as a lost sheep, searching for some kind of history. A history of the family that I have lost through the chaos of war. A war not caused by any action I have committed. Perhaps we, who served in World War II, suffer from some type of collective guilt. Those of us that lived, while others never returned to homes, jobs and loved ones. I often recall that day so long ago. That distant time whose actions authored the death of Killer Kane and the complete and total heroic unselfishness of Buck Rogers. That era when not only two individuals were the casualties but many millions. Some lived and others departed this life's journey. General William T. Sherman, of the American Civil War said it better than I ever can, "War is hell."
"I went through Hell and I went through Heaven. You know why? Because I'm here now." "That Guy upstairs was looking out for me. I got shot and others died." Bobby Longo said that. And that's all I've got to say on that issue.
"It's not your time yet. Bob it's not your time." God said that.
Coming home, to Pawcatuck, had taken me full cycle. From the skies on fire over Berlin, to the wheat fields of the Midwest, from runs up the Heydekrug road, from using cigarettes for cash in the Stalags of Germany. I had returned home to the arms of my mother and friends and family. I had seen much I had wanted to see, and more that I didn't. I had joined in camaraderie and had lost my naivete through death. The world was at peace and didn't quite know what to do with it. Perhaps, someday it will learn. I had changed, too. I would never be the same youth that left so many long years ago. Such is the countenance of war. It dons a most terrible hideous face. And in the end, I was just a Pawcatuck boy.
Robert Smiley Longo
Waist Gunner B-24