The USS General Meigs, under the command of the Coast Guard, left Hampton Roads on July 18, 1944 on its maiden voyage. She was loaded with human cargo. The enlisted men were below decks in huge cavernous holds, the bunks were four high. We young pilots, all second Lieutenants were not much better off in small staterooms eight to a room. We were on two meals per day, not really a hardship with very little activity. We had no escort and we were not part of a convoy. We were told the ship was faster than any submarine so we could go it alone.
USS General Meigs
We did not know our destination; that is until we talked to the girls. Yes, girls. Six lovely young ladies who were to be assigned to the American Consul in Naples. So that’s where we are going. They seemed to seek us out, perhaps because we were closer to their age than the other officers. And they paired off with the pilot of their choice. Mine was a slender young lady from New York with an accent to match. She tried to explain the difference between an Embassy and a Consul. I am afraid I was hopeless.
There was not anything romantic going on, although Chuck the boy from Tennessee and his dark haired beauty seemed inclined. I asked my girl where their quarters were and she told me they were on the next level up. And they were off limits, guarded by SP's, who were armed. Oh well it was a thought.
When we entered the Straits of Gibraltar we were escorted by two destroyers, one at eleven o'clock (Gibraltar) and the other stationed at one o'clock. Very comforting. We went to bed and when we woke up we were docked in the harbor at Naples. We went out on deck to watch the excitement of the pier activity. We arrived in time to see the six young ladies struggle down the gangplank in their high heels. When they reached their Lincolns they turned and waved. The ten day journey whould have been much more boring without them.
The sailors were given two hours shore leave in Naples. I was amazed at how drunk they could get in just two hours. Then we were told we could have six hours on shore. I was very eager to get back on terrafirma. I think I would have made a very poor sailor. I was shocked at what I saw in Naples. The poverty, the begging, little boys eight and nine years old pimping for their sisters, and one boy pimped for his Mother and claimed she was a virgin! This little boy from Pennsylvania was not prepared for this sort of thing. Street vendors were everywhere and from them we learned about Vesuvius and the flying cock and balls which they sold little replicas.
We learned of the Isle of Capri and the Bells of San Michel. Again little bells. I bought one and put it on my flight jacket. We went back to the ship our orders to move out were ready. We climbed into back of a truck and headed north. In a short time we entered a tent city. We were told to watch the bulletin board for future orders. We were good at that. We watched a bulletin board in Richmond for six weeks and then a bulletin board in Hampton Roads for six weeks. We were experts at bulletin board watching.
Late at night or early morning you scan the board for your name. If it is not there you are on your own for twenty-four hours.
On the second day our names were on the board. Al from Cleveland, Ohio, Dewey from Kansas, Bob from Virginia, Chuck from Tennessee, John from eastern PA, Irv from Long Island and this boy from Western PA.
The C-47 landed somewhere on Corsica. We lined up on the tarmac and must have looked a sorry sight to our superior officers. Laundry facilities had not been readily available. In addition to our disheveled condition, we were green. The veteran pilots must have felt sorry for us. We soon learned they were glad to see us. Pilots were in short supply in the 27 Fighter Bomber Group. Some names were called and assigned to the 522 Squadron. With that group was the one pilot who was younger than I was. And I had become nineteen in February.
The pilots I was close to were assigned to the 523 Squadron; Dewey, Al, Bob, Jimmy, and Chuck. Irv, John and I were assigned to the 524 Squadron. I didn't know Irv and John too well. During our twelve weeks of bulletin board watching, Irv had his wife with him and John was the studious type and kept his nose in a gook.
A pilot by the name of Sweeney became our guide. He showed us our tent and the tanker trailer where we could get our water for bathing. My helmet was to be my sink for personal hygiene for the next year. A bath in a tub was to become a real luxury. Sweeney was young and very nervous; a chain smoker whose eyes never rested on one spot too long.
We asked him how many missions we had to fly. We heard it was 25. We were shocked when he said 75 and that there were rumors it was going to 85. He had over 60 missions. He showed us the mens' latrine tent and waved vaguely at the Officer's Club, another tent.
Since we had not flown in over three months, we were told we would fly a familiarization flight in the morning. I skipped dinner. I felt like I was getting the flu. During the night I woke up with severe stomache cramps. I staggered out to a dry wash behind the tent and threw up. I was certain I had the flu.
I couldn't eat breakfast. I dressed but couldn't buckle my belt. When we arrived at the flight line, I was directed to the new Squadron Commander, Captain Joe.
I said, "Sir, I am sorry but I don't think I can fly. I have been sick all night."
He looked at me not too kindly I thought and pointed. "See that guy going there? That's our Flight Surgeon. Report to him." "Yes sir." My first day and in the dog house already.
The next two hours were a blur. The flight surgeon, a Captain, determined I had appendicitis. A short ambulance ride to a hospital, I was prepped and on an operating table within that two hours.
I was given a local so I was aware of what was going on. The Doctor was from Youngstown, Ohio. The nurse was from Niles, Ohio and I was born in Warren, Ohio and had relatives in Youngstown and Niles. I asked the Doctor if he knew my cousin from Niles, Nevin Trimbur also a Doctor. The Doctor replied, "My God, yes. He interned under me." It was old home week in the operating room.
Little encounters like this would happen a few more times before the war was over. Thousands of miles from home and you would run into someone you knew.
After two painful weeks of recovery I was returned to the 524 Squadron. The Flight Surgeon grounded me for six weeks. Joe, now a Major, was not too happy.
My friends were flying many missions into Southern France. The Group was softening things up for the invasion. But I was sent on leave to Capri. Another pilot who had fifty missions was also to go to Capri. We landed in Naples and found Capri was closed due to lack of water. The week we spent in Naples was the pits.
I did stop in to the American Consul to see our lovely boat companions. I was directed to a room on the second floor and found my girl. I told her about my operation and found out her social calendar was full, not too surprizing. And then the girl who seemed attracted to Chuck, the boy from Tennessee, walked in.
I wished I had never visited the Consul. I had to give her the bad news. Chuck had not returned from one of his missions. She looked like she was going to cry. Being the coward I am, I beat a hasty retreat to the streets of Napoli. Believe me. I was glad to get back to Corsica.
Mail for me had started to arrive from home. My parents now knew about my operation and that I was on Corsica. They wrote that a close friend and neighbor was on Corsica and assigned to the 86th Fighter-Bomber Group. His name was Sgt. Ed Gregg. With all my free time I went visiting. I was directed to his tent and he was startled by my appearance. He never expected a close neighbor to walk into his tent, especially one who was a pilot. We had received a ration of beer and Ed was cooling his in a helmut full of 100 octane gas. He shared one of his precious beers with me. We talked about home and that was good; but beer cooled in 100 octane gas was not.
While I was at the 86th I ran into one of my friends who was a Cadet with me…Reilly Stewart. He was a big Irishman who always seemed to get into trouble through no fault of his own. Well, maybe he could have avoided some of the troubles. Reilly would touch my life a few more times in this war.
Southern France was invaded and the Germans beat a hasty retreat up the Rhone Valley. The 27th flew as many missions as possible against the fleeing Germans. So much was destroyed that the 27th was awarded a Presidential Citation, their seventh.
I would go over to visit my friends in the 523rd and listen to their stories. Bob had a crazy one. He went in on a strafing run, squeezed the trigger and nothing happened. He forgot to arm his guns. As he leaned forward to flip the toggle switch a 20 millimeter went through the canopy where his head had been. His mistake had saved his life! When he took off his shirt Plexiglas fell to the floor of the tent.
The Group left Corsica and located in a town called Frejus, north of Marseille. The moved impressed me for its efficiency; no lost baggage, chow lines set up and operating with no lost meals and very little wasted time getting acquainted with the routine.
I was just about to the end of my "ground" period. Major Joe called me to his quarters and told me he was sending six pilots to Naples to pick up six new Thunderbolts. Ferrying back one of the planes double my familiarization flight before going into combat. True to his word, six of us checked out parachutes and other flying gear, climbed aboard the Group B-25 and off we went to the airfield in Naples.
The new planes were beautiful; shiny bright with bubble canopies and Curtiss Electric props. A pilot who I later called the Old Prospector was in charge of our little flight. he said we would not fly formation and would land in Corsica to refuel. "OK", he said, "Pick your plane." Naturally, I picked the wrong one!
It felt good to be flying again. I tried to keep the flight leader in sight and off my left wing. Soon Corsica came into view. My radio was unusually quiet. Then I noticed a problem; my RPM's had dropped to 1200. I pushed the control forward and nothing happened! The prop was feathering out and I had no control over it. I tried to call the flight leader to tell him my problem and the radio was dead! I tried to open the canopy, both electrically and manually and it wouldn't budge. I had to get this baby down on the ground safely with me in it.
My head had been in the cockpit so long that I had lost sight of everyone. I could see the landing field and a P-47 landing. I just didn't know where I fit into the scheme of things. I dropped my gear and flaps and decided to come in "hot" in case I had to go around. I assumed by this time everyone knew I was in trouble.
On my approach, I noticed another of our planes landing but he was on the extreme right side of the runway. Due to my speed, I passed him like a shot. Now all I had to do was slow that baby down. I hit the brakes and the tail came up. I let off the brakes and the tail went back down. I looked like a dolphin going down the runway.
Then Murphy's law came into play. "What can happen, will." A damn English Beaufighter pulled out onto the end of the runway preparing to take off in the opposite direction! The English Beaufighter was a twin engine plane with the engine nacelles protruding in front of the main fuselage; a weird looking plane. Those engine nacelles were the only thing that kept me from aiming for the pilot's compartment. If I was going, that dumb son of a bitch was going with me!
I put new effort in stopping my Jug and I got it stopped in time. Well, almost in time. The Beaufighter's right prop came around and sheared off my beautiful Curtiss Electric prop hub and threw it fifty feet into the air. We were both through flying for the day.
On the ground I was able to put some muscle into opening the canopy and it reluctantly slid open. A crew chief jumped up on the wing and wanted to know what happened. I told him and he seemed to understand. I wished to hell I did. I flew back to the 27th in the B-25. I truly expected to get my butt chewed out but Major Joe was very patient and understanding. He explained that the plane had been at the Naples airfield for so long that the battery went dead. He showed me what to do if it ever happened again. Appendicitus and now this; I was really piling up the points.
My first mission was scheduled. To say I was nervous would be a gross understatement. The mission was to be a search and destroy. We were to look for targets of opportunity and strafe them. We were to be three flights; four planes to a flight. The squadron leader told where he wanted us positioned and after take-off we were to switch to a combat channel. Since this was my first mission I was to fly his wing.
My head was on a swivel. I didn't know where he wanted me positioned so I kept it tight. Once in a while he would look at me and give me the OK sign. I saw a lone plane approaching from six o'clock, saw it was a P-51 and reported it to the flight leader. No acknowledgement. This radio silence was something else.
We searched but found nothing to destroy. We did a slow 180 and returned to base. A perfect first mission…a milk run.
At the debriefing the flight leader was upset because no one saw the P-51 and reported it. I kept perfectly quiet. I had goofed and had forgotten to switch the radio channel after take-off! I did not need any more minus points.
Missions two and three were identical to on succeeding days. Wasserman, the Intelligence Officer, explained the mission. The Swiss were sending box cars into Germany and it was suspected they were full of war materiel. We were to dive bomb the marshalling yard on the German side of the border. I had never dive bombed before. I had to ask Sweeney how to do it.
"It's simple," he explained. "In your dive, you just put your gun sight on where you want the bombs to do. When you get to two thousand feet, you start to pull the plane out of the dive and, at the same time, you hit the button on top of the stick with your thumb." It was not too comforting to learn how to dive bomb 50 feet from the Swiss border. I could cause an international incident.
When we arrived at the target the Swiss border was unmistakeable. The roof of every building was painted red and had white crosses on them. Down we went. I did exactly what Sweeney told me to do. When I pulled out and looked back I could not see where my bombs went. At least, there were no explosions on the Swiss side.
We must not have destroyed enough of the yard because the next day we had the same mission.
Mission number 4 was another search and destroy. Wing tanks and no bombs. There were to be just the one flight, four planes. I had graduated to the number four position. My element leader was English, a Hollywood version of a fighter pilot. He was tall and good looking with dark curly hair and swarthy complexion. He wore the British flying boots that seemed to be popular with some of the pilots. With his leather jacket and and a white silk scarf he was ready for the romantic lead in a movie.
The leader was an old timer who had almost all of his missions in. Pretty soon he would be going home. His wingman was a new pilot who recently joined the squadron.
The front lines had moved so far that we would have to land and refuel before reaching our target area. When we reached our search area we found a target immediately; a train. We circled and dove on the train from the side. The flight leader and his wingman went down on a boxcar in the middle of the train. English dove on the first boxcar behind the engine. That left nothing but the engine for me.
Strafing a train
The flight leader told us to pull off to the left. After I finished with the engine I looked off to the left and saw the prettiest fireworks display ever. The leader had hit an ammo car. There was only one thing wrong; his wingman flew through the explosion and the force of it blew his left ammo door open. Fighting for his life he flew straight ahead trying to get his left wing up.
We lost him. He radioed that he was going to try to make it back. Since there were only three of us the leader placed me on his right wing. After crossing over, the plane started to act peculiar. I checked my instruments and everything looked OK. I looked back at my tail and little white puffs of smoke was making my tail bob up and down. I ht the radio button and yelled "Flak!" The leader started evasive action. On a climbing turn to the left I slid under him and looking up saw fire coming out of his engine. I informed him of his problem and he pulled away from the flight. I didn't see him bail out. I was too busy.
By now English and I were completely surrounded by little puffs of white smoke. I made no attempt to fly formation. I just kept English in sight off my left wing and looked once in a while so we wouldn't run into each other. I was jerking the controls in every way possible. I had never treated an airplane so violently and that beautiful Jug responded. When my wings were vertical to the ground I would take a quick peek and see what looked like a hundred black sticks stuck in the ground all pointed at me.
Mercifully the flak ended. I was exhausted. Slowly I joined up on English.
"Are you OK?"
"Yeah," I lied.
"Do you know where we are?"
"I'll call and get directions."
I listened while he called for directions. The answer was garbled. "Did you hear that?"
He tried again with the same result. We decided to keep flying in a southwesterly direction until we saw something familiar.
The ground became mountainous. We were soon at ten thousand feet and gas was becoming a problem. I told English I was dropping my wing tanks. I didn't care if I did get hell. I would be glad to get back to catch hell at this state of our adventure. Then we saw our first landmark…Geneva, Switzerland! The runway looked inviting. All I had to do was land there and the war would be over for me. I looked to the right and looked at the snow-covered Mt. Blanc. We knew there was an airfield on the other side. We turned right. We slid past the menacing mountain and started a rapid descent.
The airfield was in sight and I was just about out of fuel.
There must have been a hundred C-47s landing, flying in supplies for the front. We circled off the end of the runway and asked for emergency landing instructions. The tower took what seem to be a helluva long time to give us permission to land. Since English had more fuel than I did he let me go first. I dropped my gear and lowered the flaps. I lined up the runway and, damn, a C-47 was on the approach. I did a 360 off the end of the runway and called the tower.
"Tower, I'm doing a 360 because a C-47 was on the approach. If another one gets in front of me I'm going to shoot him down!" Pretty cheeky for a nineteen year old.
English and I landed and followed a jeep to the refueling area. When I climbed out of the cockpit and got on the ground I knelt down and kissed that French soil. English just gave me a sardonic grin and lit a cigarette. After refueling, we took off and a short while later we were back at our own field. One mission, three landings and six and a half hours flying time. What a day.
The number two man made it back. The plane had a stalling speed of 160 miles per hour. When he landed he had to ground loop at the end of the runway to stop it. The flight leader made it back, too, but only when the war was almost over. The Germans never captured him. My plane had been hit, too. Flak had gone into my ammo storage bins and had exploded the ammo in there, raising hell with the sheet metal. I guess I couldn't have shot down anyone.
We were located too far from the enemy lines so, naturally, we had to move closer. Since there were more pilots than airplanes the younger pilots had to go north by land. There was a convoy of us. We had been issued the customary K rations which were seldom eaten. Some of us were in a command car in the convoy and we went up through the Rhone Valley past all that devastation of the German retreat. It stunk to high heaven!
We knew we were getting close to the front lines. The French people were out lining the streets of very little town we passed through, cheering and giving us the V for victory sign. Some of the pilots were raunchy enough to give them back half of it. I wondered where the pretty madamoiselles were with that famous French wine for the conquering heroes. That was probably only for the movies.
We located near Lyon, a lovely town. One day on our day off, John and I went into town to sightsee. John was anxious to find somebody to try out his French. He had his book open for four weeks and he needed some reinforcement on his pronunciation. He tried to give me a lesson but foreign languages were a problem to me. I made "Ds" in Latin in high school. I definitely had a mental block. Soon John asked a pretty girl for directions and they were chatting away so I went down the street alone.
A tall Frenchman approached me and handed me a business card and said, "Zig zig." What the hell was that? I looked at the card and it showed the address for a maison de la femme. I had heard about those. I think I understood what zig zig meant. I put the card in my pocket and continued down the street. One of my friends came toward me.
"Hey, Rease, what you doing?"
"Would you do me a favor?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"Uh, I was at this whorehouse and after I was through I washed my hands. I took off my graduation ring and I left it on the wash stand. I hafta go back and get it. Will you go with me?"
What was I suppose to be? The enforcer?
We walked a block, turned a corner, and walked up a flight of stairs, into a tastefully furnished living room. There was no problem with the ring. The madam approached us with the ring out stretched and said, "Oh, Lieutenant, you forgot your ring."
We sat down and she served some cognac. My taste buds were not conditioned for the bitter tasked but I managed not to make a face.
My friend asked if I wanted to sample the merchandise. I declined. I was saving my deflowering for a girl named Audrey back home.
When we had to sit around and wait for the weather to clear or wait for our next mission, we spent our time in the pilots' ready room. We would read, play cards or write letters. Occasionally, a mail bag would be brought in and the contents dumped on the floor. All the letters written by the enlisted men had to be censored by an officer. Reading someone else's mail is not fun. Some were pathetic. How do you express your love for a woman you have been separated from for a couple of years and a few thousand miles, day after day? I never found anything to censor.
But there was one letter that gave me a laugh. We had a sergeant who had a reputation of making out with the ladies. He learned that a European girl is always chaperoned until they were engaged to be married. So he would become engaged! He must have had at least ten to fifteen fiancés in the ETO. In his letter, he was writing to a buddy back in the states. He told him how nice it was to be in France and how great the French girls were.
The next day, I pulled the sergeant aside and with my best grim and stern face, I said, "I think I should tell you, I had to censor one of your letters."
"Oh yeah, Lieutenant. What did I say?"
"You wrote, 'The French women are like babies, everything they get in their hand they want to put in their mouth.'"
"Oh, Lieutenant, you didn't cut that out, did you?" I just gave him a smile and walked away.
There were a few more missions from Lyon. John was in love and spent every minute he could in Lyon. His French was improving rapidly. Then we were ordered back to Italy.
We were still too junior to fly our own plane to Italy so we retraced our steps to Marseille where we would board a ship to take us to Leghorn. Our jeep with three pilots and a sergeant driving was one of the last to arrive. The ship was an LST and its hold was loaded with our outfit's trucks and other rolling stock. Since it was last at night, I was very tired. I found my friends and an empty bunk and turned in.
The next morning a chow line was set up on the top deck. After breakfast my buddies started up a pinochle game. I decided to explore the ship. As I went down the gangway looking for the ladder to the top deck, I passed a small compartment with two sailors washing the breakfast trays. I thought I recognized one of the sailors.
"Hey you. Where are you from?" I pointed at the one sailor.
Seeing I was an officer they stood at attention and the sailor in question said, "Pennsylvania, sir."
"At ease. Ellwood City, right?"
The sailor got a shocked look on his face and replied, "Yeah. Who are you?"
"Don't they call you Nosey Nosewell?" I asked.
"Yeah, but I don't know you."
He was right. One night in my hometown I was on my way home when I saw a crowd in front of the train station. Curious, I saw two guys trying to punch each others brains out. I asked the girl next to me who the little guy was who was holding his own. She replied, "Oh, that's Nosey Nosewell. He's always getting into trouble."
Here he was in French harbor doing what he called "piss and punk duty." He had gotten in trouble and this was his punishment. I told him where I was bunked and when he had some time off to come and look for me.
Nosey soon showed up and I introduced him to the other pilots. They adopted him and made him feel at home. He showed his appreciation after lunch by bringing some left-over cake from the Navy mess. After dinner we were told we couldn't leave the harbor because we didn't have enough water for the trip. Therefore, we were given shore leave. Four of my friends decided to go into that infamous town of Marseille. They invited Nosey to go with them. I wasn't feeling good so I stayed on board. Nosey was broke so I "lent" him some money. Of course, I never saw it again. Also, I should have warned them about Nosey's ability to get into trouble.
The next morning I awoke to a ship busy preparing to depart for Leghorn. My friends were still sacked out. I saw Nosey briefly and he asked me if my buddies had told me about last night. I said No and asked what happened? "You better have them tell you," he answered. I had a strong suspicion that Nosey's reputation was intact.
Finally, one of my friends came up on deck in search of a cup of coffee.
"OK. Nosey wouldn't tell me. What happened last night?"
"You are lucky you stayed on board."
"Did Nosey get you into trouble?"
"Oh no. We got Nosey into trouble. We stopped off at a café and had a drink. While there we decided to look up a maison de la femme. We found one and we had just got there when a team of SPs and MPs raided the joint. Since we were officers and since Nosey was with us, they let us go without reporting us. So we looked around for another joint and shortly after arriving, I'll be damned if the same team showed up. And they let us go again. Well, we went to a third place and those same guys raided it, too. This time they didn't let us go and took or names and our outfits to report us"
I thought, "Thank God for my upset stomach!"
We arrived at Leghorn late at night. I don't remember too much of the trip. I do remember being in the back of a truck and traveling through mountains. We ended up in a coastal field west of Rome. Our tent was up and our gear was on the floor of the tent. The hardest thing we had to do was put together our cots, always a chore.
With winter coming, we were issued some welcome gear. First, an air matress which gave our spines a break. Then a long quilt-lined jacket with a furlined hood. And gloves of three layers; the first silk, the second later leather and the final layer wool. I would appreciate those items in the coming months.
The combat missions were always in the Po Valley. It was dive bomb a bridge, dive bomb an industrial building, dive bomb a suspected war material area. The usual routine was to fly up the west coast and when north of Genoa fly into the target. Genoa was an extremely heavily fortified harbor. I few one mission into there. There was a hill on the west side of the harbor that was covered with guns and that hill would turn to fire when we came in. I am glad I only had one mission there.
These missions taught me what flight leaders were good to fly with and what flight leaders were not so good to fly with. A good leader was a good navigator, flew directly to the target, found the target immediately and dove on it. There is nothing worse than a flight leader circling around looking for the target while we get our ass shot off. And some like to have fun on the way home, like bussing. The Old Prospector like to hit the deck coming home. After one of these missions, I pulled up to the flight line, was getting out of the cockpit when Major Joe came driving by in a jeep. He went past a few feet and then put the jeep in reverse.
"A tough mission, Reasman?"
"Oh no, sir. A milk run."
"Well then, how did you get that dent on the leading edge of your wing?" he pointed to it.
There was a big dent in the wing. I was glad there were no feathers or leaves in that dent.
"Golly, sir, if there was any flak I didn't see it."
He gave me a suspicious look and drove off.
There was another interesting observation coming back from a mission. Two Italian fisherman in a rowboat, one on their oars and the other in the stern. The man in the stern would drop something and the oarsman would row away from the spot as fast as he could. The water would erupt, the oarsman would row back to the original spot. When I asked what was going on I was told they were dropping land mines and the explosion would kill fish and they would go back and pick them up. It sounded like a pretty dangerous way to fish. I always wondered what would would happen if when coming back from an aborted mission with bombs intact if we dropped those bombs near them. They could pick up dead fish for a week!
My friends found out their punishment for their escapades in Marseille. They were confined to quarters for two weeks which meant they couldn't go to the Officer's Club or leave the base on their days off. I would go over to their tent and we would play pinocle. I was never too interested in the Officer's Club anyway. However, I can't say the same about my days off.
The usual practice was to go into Rome. I would check the mission sheet the day before and after my last mission, I would throw a few things into a bag and take off for the short trip into Rome. A day away from the war was very welcome and Rome was the ideal spot. A few hotels were set aside for Officers and after checking in, I'd take off for the sights. It didn't take long to discover Broadway Bill's.
Broadway Bill's deserves its own space. First, it was reserved for Officers only and two big MP's stood at the entrance to enforce the rules. The club was in the cellar and located about a block from the hotel, easily within staggering distance. Roman girls were not allowed in unless they were escorted by an Officer. So there were usually a few girls at the top of the stairs waiting for a lone Officer to latch onto.
The steps down were wide about eight feet wide I would estimate. At the bottom of the stops before turning right through the entrance was the ubiquitous statue of Romulus and Remus and the wolf. With Romulus sucking on one of the wolf's titties, Remus was sitting at the rear of the wolf facing outward. With the Roman's concession for accuracy Remus was complete with a little pecker. The statue being bronze was very oxidized to a dark maroon color, except for the penus of Remus. It is shown in all its glory to a bright golden brass, unoxidized color.
I asked the MP's for an explanation and they just said, "Watch, Lieutenant."
Soon an Officer came down the steps with a female Roman on his arm. As they swung to make the turn into the Club she quickly reached out and gave the penus of Remus a little rub.
"What was that for?" I asked the MP's.
They explained to me that the girls had a superstition that if they rubbed that little pecker it would protect them from VD. Perhaps I should give that little pecker a rub myself!
Inside Broadway Bills was organized chaos with wall to wall people, a heavy layer of smoke, shouted orders for drinks and a small combo that had a leader who did a creditable job of playing Tommy Dorsey's theme song. It never failed to give my heart a little tug of homesickness. Girls were everywhere trying to find an Officer with a generous heart. They had picked up GI slang and it was hilarious to hear them say it. Tables were large with a capacity of about eight. All services were represented. If you could find a seat you would probably find at least four different outfits represented.
One night I was sitting with Lipiarz. Now the Lip was my candidate for squadron comedian, if not the whole group. When Lip would see his name on a mission he would say in a high squeeky voice, "I can't go. I bin sick." Of course, he went anyway. Around the table were different outfits represented but the guy to Lip's left wasn't an Officer and he wore a strange patch on his shoulder. The Lip asked him what that meant. He replied, "I am a war correspondent."
"Really?" said the Lip. "Well, I am a fighter pilot and there I was, right on the deck, upside down and hanging by my throat mike. Now, remember the name…Lipiarz…L.I.P.I.A.R.Z." He had the whole table howling with his war story.
My one day off day experiences were enjoyable and would dome in handy later on. Though language was still a small barrier, the girls seemed to pick up English faster than we did Italian. One night, after Broadway Bill's, I was escorting a lovely Roman home. The streets were dark and ominous. At one point, the little lady said, Me fredo." Walking along side her with that cannon 45 under my left armpit, I asked, "What are you afraid of?"
"No afraid. Fredo, caldo, fredo." It dawned on me she was cold so I put my non-45 arm around her. When we reached her apartment, she invited me up. I accepted. Sorry about that Audrey!
We were too far from the bomb line and we had to move closer. By this time I was senior enough to fly my own plane to our new base. The town was called Pontedera and was located on the East-West highway between Pisa and Firenze. The 86th Fighter Group was based at Pisa so I could go down there and visit my neighbor and some of my old cadet friends on my day off.
The town itself was typical of old European villages. Everyone seemed to be skilled at the same craft. With winter coming on, we were not to be in tents but in buildings which seem to resemble warehouses or workshops. The rooms were large with high ceilings and the windows, if any, were high. In our cavernous room smaller rooms were framed about the size of a tent. Irv and John were my room-mates and Irv being our expert midnight requisitioner got us a stove. The damn thing burned 100 octane fuel! It's a wonder we were not all blown to bits. The darn things worked and kept us warm through that cold winter. I wonder what happened to those stoves?
The Officer's Mess was about a half block away. It, too, was in one of those buildings with high ceilinged rooms. The mess was in four parts; the first area was the kitchen, the second was a small room for the bar, the big room was divided into two areas separated by a screen. One side was the dining area and the other side was a lounge where we would wait for dinner to be served. We would sit there and tell stories, compare letters from home, show the latest pictures of our girl friends and many other time consuming endeavors.
The first night there was an amusing thing happened. One of the pilots pointed to one of the high windows and exclaimed, "Look at that!" So naturally everyone looked. There in the open window of the next building was a beautiful girl. She leaned out to grab hold of the window to swing it shut. We could see that not only was she beautiful but well stacked. She closed the window and was gone. There was a very audible groan from the officers.
Another thing was added at Pontedera; Red Cross girls. After a mission and after debriefing, we would go upstairs and have coffee and doughnuts. Of course the company of the female gender was kind of nice, too. In charge of the unit was an older woman who had to be at least thirty-something. She always came up to me and we would talk. She became a close friend and a good one to know. She knew who did what in the Group and knew how to get things done.
I noticed a change in me between 40 and 50 missions. I no longer panicked when I saw my name down for a mission. It became just a job. If I carried a lunch pail to the plane I would have looked like any other grease monkey going to work at the local mill. Of course, when Wasserman said the mission was in Brenner Pass or Genoa Harbor or Bologna, the sphinctor had a tendency to tighten up. These were hot spots and heavily fortified. My friends still had more missions than I had but I was catching them. I was often called on the early morning mission, the "wake up the Germans" mission. This meant I would have another mission that afternoon. So weather permitting I would fly two missions. Two days I flew three missions. I was catching up fast.
The missions were shorter, too. The bomb-line was only a few miles away. On one mission with the Old Prospector leading us, four of us went up into the hills north of our base to bomb what looked like a six holer. We were back in 26 minutes, my shortest mission. That was better than a six and a half hour mission by far.
"Wake up the Germans" missions had a very distinctive advantage. My fiftieth mission was flown on Christmas morning. Two flights were to dive-bomb a factor southeast of Milan. We took off at dawn. The day was crystal clear. The scenery was spectacular with snow-covered mountains coming down to the blue finger lakes north of Milan. Everything was just too beautiful to be doing what we were to do on Christmas. We found the target quickly, made our dives and dropped our bombs. No problem; there was no enemy fire.
When we got back for our debriefing, the next mission was ready to hit the same target. We told them there was no flak. They smiled and took off. When they came back they told us they got the hell shot out of them. A third mission was scheduled for the same place and the enemy fire was so heavy a few planes were damaged. The early morning shift had some distinct advantages.
Christmas dinner was a very happy occasion. The food was unusually good and Irv and I with another pilot named Eddy were going to Rome for a week's leave in the morning. Time out from the war in our favorite city.
The next morning we threw our B-4 bags in the back of a truck and took off. After checking in at the hotel, Irv said he had made a date with a girl who worked in a buddy's office. Did he want to see if she had a friend for me? Not only Yes but Hell Yes!, Irv.
We dressed up in our "pinks and greens", met the girls and took them to dinner with a four instrument string quartet playing chamber music with our meal. The friend was small, barely 100 pounds. She spoke no English and I knew no Italian. Irv's friend had to do the interpreting. But we got along great, anyway.
After dinner, we took them to Broadway Bill's for a quick drink and a dance. Then we went to their apartment. Little Anna had a delightful way of waking me up. At least, the first time was delightful, the second time I groaned and the time I said, "Oh, shit!" Later I found out I should have said oh, caca so she would understand, Oh, to be nineteen again!
The next morning the girls had to go to work so we left early to go back to the hotel. On the way back Irv said, "Well, that's enough of that. We won't be seeing them again." Irv, say it isn't so!
Upon returning to the hotel, I hit the sack for a much needed rest. Irv woke me up about noon and said that Eddie found out they were serving ice cream at the Red Cross. If there is a food to tempt me in this whole world, it's ice cream. When we got there, the ice cream was not that great but it was ice cream. Then Irv noticed a sign advertising a bus tour of Rome so we signed up for the next day's tour.
On the tour, we learned that Rome is called the city of fountains and I think we saw every damn one of them. We saw the balcony where Mussolini begged his subjects to have more babies so he could have a bigger army. We went down into the catacombs. We stood in the Coloseum and cheered the lions on. Today, the Lions can't even beat Kansas City. The last stop for the tour was the Vatican and it was a welcome relief after looking at all those fountains. We had a quick tour of the Sistine Chapel. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the spectacular statues, paintings, the enormous wealth of gold and silver in the form of chalices and goblets. Everywhere there were Swiss guards who did not seem to have anything going for them except a big old ax circa 1500 AD.
We were told the Pope was giving an audience at the top of the stairs. We raced up and entered a long narrow room. Pope Pius XII was sitting on a throne at the far end and speaking into a microphone in English. His audience was gathered about four deep at the bottom step in a semi-circle, split in the middle by a column of Swish guards. The only thing the guards moved were their eyes and they held those axes in front of them. We craned our necks, trying to see over the crowd. The Pope had finished his speech and moved down to greet the crowd on a personal basis.
"Hey, Rease, this guy wants to tell you something." Irv pointed to the rear with his thumb indicating a priest.
"Yes, Father?" I asked.
"Would you like to see the Pope?"
"Then just walk up through the Swiss guards and get into the front." I looked at him and then at the Swiss guards and then back to the priest. He sensed my apprehension and reassured me. "It's alright. Go ahead."
Since I was the only Catholic, I took off through those guards and reached the front. The Pope was only a few steps away. Each person he addressed genuflected and kissed the ring on his right hand. We he reached me, he said "American airmen. God bless you."
I did what everyone else was doing, knelt and kissed his ring. I was astounded when I turned to leave and saw first Irv and then Eddie kneel and kiss his ring, too. I thought I went up there by myself.
We floated out of the Vatican. Irv and Eddie were chattering as elated as I was. Then Eddie said, "Our maid is Catholic and I am going to write her and tell her what I did today." Did he say maid? The only maids I ever saw were in the movies.
When we returned to the hotel, the three of us sat down and wrote home to tell them of our day while it was fresh in our minds. I imagined my Catholic mother would especially enjoy it. I could visualize her showing the letter to Father Wilkie and maybe some of her friends at the Elks Club. Oh, how I underestimated my mother! She had the whole letter published in the local paper, the Ellwood City Ledger. Not a word was changed.
One of our nights in Rome was spent with Irv's friend who was in Public Relations for the Twelfth Army Air Corps. At the time I was emulating Hot Shot Charlie of the comic strips, Terry and the Pirates. I wore my white silk scarf cravat style, my fifty mission crush (now legitimate) was tilted back on my head, I carried a swagger stick and had a holder for my cigarette. No kidding. The four of us were down on the floor of the PR's apartment shooting craps. I was having a pretty good run of luck and was mouthing off at a good rate, much to the consternation of the PR. Suddenly, he leaned back and took a long, hard look at me. "You remind me of someone. Who is it? Oh, I know. That Hot Shot Charlie character in the funnies. I have an idea. Why don't you paint his picture on your plan and call it Hot Shot Charlie. I'll come up and take a picture of you and the plane and I'll have that picture in every newspaper in the country." See how these PRs think. I never took him up on it. I missed my claim to fame.
However, he had another idea for Irv. The Twelfth Army Air Corps would soon be flying its two millionth sortie and he asked Irv to be that sortie with news cameras and the whole shot. That big promotion was to take place in about a month.
On another night, Irv asked me if I had ever been to an opera. Not hardly. Operas were not too big in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. He said La Traviata was playing at the local Opera House. He assured me the music was good. I agreed to go. Irv had taken over my cultural development.
We dressed up in our pinks and greens and took off for the Opera House. Irv bought the tickets. The guy was a miracle worker. The house was packed but we had seats in the fourth row of the orchestra and on the aisle. I labored through the first act. Irv asked if I wanted to go out for a smoke during intermission. I suggested we wait until the end of the second act. But I turned around and noticed practically the entire audience was gone. At the end of the second act I needed to stretch my legs so we went to the lobby to have a cigarette. No one was there. where in the hell did the audience go? I looked up on the wall and saw a large red arrow with the word BAR printed on it.
Irv and I raced down the hall, found the door to the bar and entered into a party. A band was playing, the Romans were dancing and Irv and I spent so much time struggling to get to the bar, we only had time for one drink. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. I read that somewhere. Now I know shy opera is so popular in Rome.
At the end of the third act, we raced to the bar. This time, we were able to get in two drinks. Apparently, we were way behind in the drink department. In the fourth act, the heroine was on her death bed, singing an aria to her lover. In the middle of it, a very cockney voice in the balcony shouted out, "Close your mouth. There's a draft in here." That was my first and last opera.
It was New years Eve day and our last night in Rome. I didn't attach any special significance to the day. After lunch, I wandered into the bar for my beloved rum and coke. I met another pilot who flew P-38s for the famous "Hat in the ring" squadron. Their missions were aerial photography. We struck up an instant friendship. Our only disagreement was whose turn it was to buy the drinks. We quickly reached that alcoholic state called blotto. By late afternoon, I noticed an increase in the activity in the bar we used to have to ourselves and it was mainly female type activity.
"What's going on?" I asked my new friend.
"There's going to be a big party tonight; dinner, band, dancing…the works. After all, it's New Years Eve."
"Where did all these girls come from?"
"There is probably a couple of guys out front, escorting them in and dropping them off. You can't have much of a party without girls."
The girls were, indeed, unattached and were trying to find an officer to latch onto. It meant a free meal, drinks and dancing. Since we were alone, they came to our table singly or twos or threes.
Wait a minute. We should set some standards. We can't just accept anyone. What are we looking for?" My friend had a good idea but it's difficult to think after your third rum and coke.
"Well," I replied, "I have always been terribly fond of black panties."
"Black panties it will be," declared my unsober friend. "How do you say black panties in Italian? And do we believe them if they say Si?"
"Hell, no. They have to prove it."
And so the inspection began. The girls were very cooperative, raising their dresses to show us their panties. Then a very beautiful girl came to your table. She complied with our request and showed us her panties. They were pink with black lace trim. I jumped up an said, "Close enough." I left the bar with my prize and my ex-friend yelling "Fink."
Her name was Sonya and how she escaped someone grabbing her before she reached our table, I'll never understand. I truly had the Belle of the Ball! I hoped dinner would sober me up a little. It didn't. We danced and at midnight, we celebrated by kissing everybody and hugging. We had good reason to celebrate. This looked like the last year of the war. The next year would bring the grim realities of peace. But for the present, I had to kiss Sonya goodbye and staggered off to bed.
The next morning, The three of us packed and took our bags to the lobby to await our transportation back to Pontederra. While we lounged around in walked beautiful Sonya. We were in are basic working clothes…leather jackets, OD trousers, fifty mission crushes, and a scarf hanging loose around our necks. I wrote my mother about how important a scarf was to a pilot. Typical mother, she sends me a white silk scarf, six feet long, a foot and a half wide and double thickness. Sonya reached down and removed the scarf from my neck. She wrapped it around that lovely body and looked at me for approval.
"The next time in Rome, you look for Sonya. No?" The next time in Rome, I look for Sonya, yes! Unfortunately, I never got back to Rome.
On our trip back, Irv, Eddie and I took a vote. We voted that Rome should become the forty-ninth state in the Union and it should be moved lock, stock and fountain to the middle of the United States for easy access to all. We san on the way back, "How you goin' go keep them down on the farm after they have been to Rome?" That was a magnificent leave.
We settled down to the boredom of war. Being winter, the weather was usually bad so we sat around a lot waiting for the weather to clear up. On our days off, we would drive down toward Firenze to a place that had hot spring bathes. That was pure heaven. Another activity was to cross the river on a unique ferry and climb the mountain north of us. The ferry was unique because the ferry used the flow of the river for its power to take us across. A cable was stretched across the river, the boat was attached to the cable with a steel ring and, after we loaded up, the helmsman would shove the rudder over so that the river force would push us across. Neat. About six of the pilots climbed the mountain and, at the top was an abandoned monastery. We explored it, enjoyed the view, and then returned to the ferry.
Of course, I would visit my friends in the 86th stationed down the road at Pisa. Knowing some of my friends, they probably were using the famous leaning tower as a racing pylon. On one of my visits with Sgt. Ed Gregg, after exchanging pictures and information from home, he asked me, "Did you see Reilly?
"Yeah, I had lunch with him."
"How did he seem?" he asked.
"A few days ago, he checked out a plane for a test hop. He brought it back full of bullet holes and he had fired the guns. The Colonel chewed his ass good." That says it all about that big Irishman.
The PR we shot craps with in Rome was true to his word. He showed up with his camera crews to record the two millionth sortie for the folks back home. It was a single flight with Irv, the star, flying as element leader. The mission…Dive bomb and strafe Genoa harbor. I was glad it was Irv going on that mission. They took off with cameras running. A little less than two hours later the flight came back with one of the planes missing. "Oh God," exclaimed the PR. He was worried the hero of this adventure was the one lost.
Irv made it back but his wingman flew into that hill that guarded the entrance of the harbor covered with guns. Irv said he covered that whole hill with fire.
Evening dinner was served after dark when flying had ceased. I am afraid Irv was not gastronomically prepared for Army chow. He would grumble and complain loudly at dinner. Irv was Jewish and Jewish mothers are well known for doting on their sons. Jewish mothers are also known for their excellent cooking. I, on the other hand, had an Irish-Catholic mother who came from a very large family. If there was food on the table, they considered that fortunate. My mother used to brad that during the depression she could cook hamburger twenty-two different ways. I believe her because I was there. The only food I remember as being outstanding was her homemade bread. To this day, I wish I could have some of that bread.
One night at dinner, Irv was complaining more than usual about the food. He could tolerate it no longer. He threw down his fork and marched up to the head table where the Group officers sat. He shook his finger in the Mess Officer's face and said, "Your cooks ought to be digging ditches."
The Executive Officer jumped up and said, "You are now Mess Officer." Irv came back to the table with a big grin on his face and told us what happened.
He did take over the Officer's Mess. I asked him about his flying and he said only when he had time. He seldom had time. I soon passed him on the number of missions. The food did improve and I suspect it was more credit to Irv's midnight requisitioning abilities than his cooking directions. There was a serendipity effect. Irv distributed the pilot's monthly liquor ration. The Colonel got first pick, Irv got second pick and I got third pick. I didn't think anybody knew that. The third pick was wasted on me. I just put that jug in my footlocker and used it for barter.
In February, I celebrated my twentieth birthday. It wasn't much of a celebration, but my Red Cross lady did give me a present. It was a Zippo cigarette lighter with the Group insignia soldered on the case. I valued that lighter very much. I was twenty but I was still the youngest pilot in the group.
We found out we were being moved to Northern France, getting ready for the spring push into the Fatherland. On the last day, Wasserman's sergeant came up to me and asked, "Can I ask a favor of you, Lieutenant?"
"I suppose so. What is it?"
"My fiancé has a young sister who would like to meet an American pilot. Since your pretty close to her age I thought we could visit with her to-night."
"I have heard about your fiancés, Sergeant. How old is the younger sister?"
I was very reluctant but I agreed. We would meet after chow and meet his fiance's family.
Their home was next to the building of our Officer's mess. We climbed the stairs and into the kitchen. I was introduce to mama, papa, the fiancé and her little sister. I could have killed the Sergeant. The little sister was the girl in the window. I am leaving in the morning and now he introduces me to this lovely thing. There is absolutely no justice in this world. The Sergeant spoke a little Italian and his "fiance" spoke little English. We struggled in our conversation for about an hour and then I had to leave. We were flying out early in the morning. I promised to fly low over their house when I left. Miracles of miracles, the father permitted his daughter to escort me downstairs to the door ALONE! At the door, we embraced and kissed a very sisterly kiss. Damn that Sergeant!
The next, morning, I performed as promised. I buzzed their house and waggled my wings as I climbed back into formation. I don't know if Maria was out there to see or not. I would like to think she did.
Goodbye Maria. Goodbye Anna. Goodbye Sonya. Hello Suzette.
We landed at an airfield at St. Dizier. Our quarters were tents located on the grounds of a fairly large chateau. The senior officers and the Officer's Club were in the chateau itself. Some new pilots were there waiting for us. One said his name was Dave and that he had been an instructor in P-47s for two years. As we were talking and getting settled in our new quarters, a Jug from the 86th came over and buzzed us in a welcome wagon gesture of sorts. The plane had a shark's mouth painted on its nacelle. I suspected it was my Irish friend, Reilly. He did a pretty good job and he shook the hell out of our tents. But the new guy, Dave didn't seem to be impressed.
"What's the name of our Engineering Officer?" he asked.
"Captain "Pappy" Devin."
"I think I'll see him tomorrow. Maybe he has a plane that needs a test hop. Something like that requires an answer." My new friend and I took off for the chateau to eat dinner and forgot our conversation.
The next evening during our usual pre-dinner bull session, Dave said he checked out a plane and buzzed the 86th.
"They won't forget that buzz job for awhile," he announced.
"Oh, yeah" What did you do; blow a couple of tents over?"
"No," he replied, "I buzzed them inverted."
I thought maybe he went down the runway upside down or something like that. A few days later I visited Sgt. Ed Gregg and found out what Dave did.
"Honest to God, Jim. I looked up and saw this belly tank coming at me with an airplane hanging from it. He got everybody's attention then came back and did it again and to make sure no one missed it, he did it again."
"You mean here or out on the runway?"
"Here. I swear he pruned that tree there. Then he went into a sharp climb doing a couple of rolls and then he came back down the runway and did the prettiest eight point slow roll right on the deck that anybody ever saw."
That was the end of the buzz jobs and Dave had a nickname, Dangerous Dave.
The Germans were being compressed so their armament was denser. Captain Wasserman, our G-2, maintained a map to chart our missions and the map showed the gun emplacements. Each 88 gun emplacement was a red dot with a red circle of about 3" diameter indicating the range of that gun. The war front was an almost solid line of red circles. German 88's were a pilot's worse fear. It could throw a charge up to over 10,000 feet with a black cloud that looked like a figure eight. I don't know about the other pilots but, in my case, when I heard eighty-eight, I flinched. And I flinched for at least five years after the war was over.
Captain Wasserman's map showed a solid line of three inch circles, except for one area where the circles were close but didn't touch. That became our corridor to fly behind enemy lines. Maybe the circles didn't touch but we always received one single lone solitary shot going through that spot and it was always close. So close that we nicknamed it Annie Oakley.
Other outfits used the same corridor. On day as we approached it, a flight in front of us got its welcoming shot. The radio crackled, "Oh, oh. Annie got me. I am returning to based. Blue Leader, take over the mission."
When we went through, we received our one shot greetings, too.
At first, our missions were similar to our missions in Italy. Hit behind the lines at supply centers and distribution points. Every once in a while, we would get a peachy keen escort mission. Our air superiority was so overwhelming at this point there were seldom any problems. I had almost seventy missions and had not seen an enemy plane flying yet. That was soon to change.
The mission was composed of four flights, sixteen planes. We were going on a dive-bombing mission and it was led by Major Joe. A short time after crossing the bomb-line and after receiving our ceremonial blast from Annie, one of the pilots noticed enemy aircraft circling overhead. It appeared they were about to sweep down on us. Major Joe gave the order to arm our bombs, drop them, then form a Luftberry. A Luftberry manuever is strictly defensive. The planes fly in a circle so that every plane's tail is covered. If an enemy plane is foolish enough to get on one of the planes, there was a plane in position to shoot him down. That the theory anyway.
I found myself looking back at my tail and each time I did, I was that big beautiful engine nacelle. So I relaxed and looked around. Damn! 180 degrees from me was a Messerschmidt on the tail of a P-47. At the same time, Major Joe screamed over the radio, "Kill him. Hill him. Get that sonofabitch."
Nothing happened. The Me109 peeled off and joined his friends. Soon they were gone and we returned to base.
At the de-briefing, Major Joe was furious. I never saw him so angry. And the sad part, no one saw the Me109 except Joe and I. Joe looked at me and asked, slightly incredulous, "You saw him, Reasman?"
"Yessir, but he was opposite me. You didn't want me to break formation, did you?"
"Hell, no." He looked at me with new respect. I think I emerged from the doghouse at that moment.
Search and destroy missions were on the increase, especially when there was an overcast at a few thousand feet. On one such occasion, our mission was composed of three flights and the overcast was about two thousand feet, a very dangerous height. At that altitude, the Germans were able to throw everything at us; 88s, 40s, 20s, rocks and mess kits.
One of my favorite flight leaders, Pappy by name, was directing the mission. By the way, anybody over 25 years of age was called Pappy or some other antiquated reference to reflect his ancient achievement.
We found a train in a wooded area with very discernible white steam coming out of the engine. Pappy sent one flight down and three 88s opened fire. I think it was a set-up with the train as bait. Two of the guns were at the rear of the train in a heavily wooded area. One gun was directly under me at the head of the train and was located in the backyard of a house. The gun was protected by a ring of sandbags. I asked Pappy for permission to put the gun out of commission.
"Roger, Blue three."
I told my wingman to wait until I pulled off the target before he came down and I would protect him when he pulled off the target. Down I went and poured those eight 50s into the gun emplacement. I pulled off to the left and watched my partner do the same thing. I circled watching the gun. It didn't move.
Soon Pappy gave the order to hit the deck and we buzzed back to our lines safely.
We moved again; this time to Nancy, France. Actually it was only near Nancy. Our airfield was on top of a little knoll. The runway was steel panels or mesh. The hump in the runway was so extensive that when you landed on one end you couldn't see the other end. On a mission we aborted, probably due to bad weather, we landed with our bombs. The tower was usually good about a third of the way down the runway. When I landed, the tower started to screaming so loud that I couldn't understand them. As I passed the tower, I looked over at them and saw the reason for their panic. The 500 pound bomb on my right wing had fallen off and was doing a creditable job of imitating a porpoise. All I had to do was goose the throttle a little and get away from it. The poor guys in the tower could only watch and pray it didn't go off. If it had, the tower would have been blown to bits.
We heard of an incident of a P-47 landing with its bombs, the bombs dropping off and exploding; destroying everything of the Jug behind the canopy. I was told the pilot came out OK but was deaf for two weeks. I wonder how he is today.
Our whisky ration came in and I was very disappointed. It was two bottles of Black and White Scotch. I didn't like whisky much and that applied especially to Scotch. So I took one of the bottles down to the line. I was climbing into the cockpit to get ready for a mission. The crew chief or the armament chief would stand on the wing and help the pilot with the parachute, the acrobatic straps, the safety belt, oxygen mask, etc. When I was all comfy, I handed the chief the bottle of Scotch. I looked past him at the armament chief and he had a horrified look on his face. What did I do wrong?
The next day, the armament chief was helping into my outfit. "You know, Lieutenant, when he gave that bottle to the chief I just about shit."
"I noticed. What the problem?"
"The chief is an alky."
I groaned. "It turned out OK. I'm proud of him. He took it back to the barracks and gave everybody a drink. You are a popular man down there."
The plane I was assigned had seen better days. When I got back safely from a mission, I was not only glad the Germans had not shot me down but the plane was in good enough condition to get me back. The skin had scorched streaks on it and the aluminum was heavily oxidized. A beauty queen it wasn't. The next week, that plane was polished to a high gloss. It sparked. Major Joe complimented me on how good it looked. He was puzzled by my nonchalance. I told him I didn't know what happened. I guessed the crew decided to shine her up. He walked away, shaking his head. Of course, I didn't tell him about the Scotch.
We took our laundry to a nearby village. We drove up with dirty laundry (and soap) and picked up clean laundry. The village was a farming community. In France, the farmers lived together, a throwback to the fuedal days when they lived together for defense reasons. The barns were on the first floor or ground level and the living quarters on the second floor. It made for very odorous living quarters.
We were informed we were moving again; this time into Germany. We were to be the first Army Air Corps unit across the Rhine. We were cautioned that the move was "Top Secret."
The day before the move I went into the farming village to pick up my laundry. Of course, I had no dirty laundry to leave.
The young woman asked, "No lange?"
I gave her a noncommittal shrug.
She wagged her finger at me and smiled, "No fraternize fraulien, eh?"
So much for top secret moves. She was right. In Germany we were not to socialize or otherwise with the Germans. I took my clean laundry and left.
Our next base, and my last base, was just across the Rhine River and was called Biblis. I was told it was Hermann Goering's private airfield and game reserve. The wooded area around the field was crisscrossed with dirt roads and was stocked with wild game. Old Hermann would drive through in the back of an open car and shoot deer and anything else he saw. Now, our GIs were hunting the deer and I saw a couple hanging from a tree when I arrived on the base. I was used to the huge deer of Pennsylvania. When I saw those German deer, they were only the size of a large dog. However, when I saw their rabbits, I had never seen such large rabbits. I prefer large deer and small rabbits.
Our quarters were tents pitched in the woods within walking distance of the Officer's mess and the briefing room. Although I did not know it, the war was rapidly drawing to a close. The missions became more interesting with close support of the ground troops.
John was wounded on one mission. His right arm was sprayed with shrapnel from an 88. He was grounded for six weeks. He was the last of our original group that had more missions than I had. I soon passed him.
For some reason, liquor supplies for the Officer's club was becoming a problem. Irv, as Club Officer, was responsible for replenishing the liquor supply. One of his missions, not combat, was to take the Group B-25 and visit the estates of Hennesy and Martell. He returned with a plane load of high quality cognac.
I was always glad to see Dangerous Dave assigned to my wing. Not only was he a good pilot be he seemed to see everything in the sky. That was a very valuable asset. Now that I think about it my missions with Dave were a little hotter than most. Maybe Dave was bad luck. One mission was an attack against an airfield. Airfields are always heavily fortified and this mission was no exception. We strafed the field and the Germans strafed us. Tracers from their guns were ricocheting of the roof of the hangers. And Dave was hit. Black smoke poured out of his engine. We headed straight west and the base. Dave had no power. I had to stay with him to protect him if he was attacked and to spot the area if he went down. He was obviously a wounded duck. Then he radioed that he was able to get some power back.
"How," I asked.
"I just gave it a little water," he answered.
The P-47 had a water injection system and there was about a twenty minute supply. Dave would give it a short burst of water to gain some altitude and then coast. We made it back to the base. When the rest of the flight returned, one plane was lost and he had crash landed on the German runway. We don't know what happened to the pilot.
Stuttgart was being attacked by French and American troops. The Germans who could were leaving the city by way of the east-west highway out of the city., A two flight mission caught this exodus one day and we attacked. I don't think it was much of a military target but we were in the mood to attack anything that moved. Down we went with eight guns blazing. When I pulled off the target, I looked to the left to see if it was clear to turn. What I saw was horrifying. A huge ball of flame was rolling on the ground; what was left of a P-47. There had been no enemy fire. What happened? When we returned to base, we figured the pilot flew his gunsight into the ground. It was a very sobering experience.
Relaxing in the ready room or in the Officer's Club, we engaged in various activities; writing letters, reading, playing cards, or just shooting the bull. At times like these, I liked to engage in a little game-playing or, as we called it in the executive suite, one-upmanship. When I would see a Flight Surgeon come into the room out of the corner of my eye, I pretended I didn't see him and I would go through my Messerschmidt twitch routine. I would tighten the muscles of my neck that pulled the corner of my lip down and then I would raise my eyebrows like I was trying to lift my eyelids off my eyeballs. There were alternate exercises of stretching my neck trying to free it from my collar. As long as the Doc was in the room, I would twitch, stretch and jerk. I didn't know it at the time but I was the predestinator of "Rock and Roll." What did this routine get me. I hoped for a leave or a trip home. When I did finally go home, I took a look into my 201 file and found a letter from the Flight Surgeon that said I was suffering from extreme combat fatigue. Too late.
I took my usual visit to the 86th to exchange news from home with Sgt. Ed Gregg. He greeted me with very sad news. My friend, Reilly Stewart, had bought the farm. Before entering the flight program, Reilly had been a paratrooper which took twelve jumps to qualify for your badge. Reilly always said he would never make that thirteenth jump. That superstition killed him. His plane was disabled by enemy fire, he was told to bail out and he refused. He crash-landed into the Maginot Line. Those concrete teeth chewed him and his plane to pieces.
A Group mission was scheduled. A large bomber raid was to take place later in the day. We were to hit three airfields and make then inoperative. Airfields are definitely not my favorite target. The Colonel was to lead the Group and each Squadron Commander was to lead the squadrons. The airfields were East of Stuttgart and about 25 miles apart in a North-South direction.
Our squadron, the 524, was to be the first to strike and our airfield was the one most southerly., The 522 would hit the one in the middle and the 523, the Colonel's squadron, would hit the northern field. Our squadron went into our field and did our darndest. We strafed up one side and down the other. There was no enemy fire. We pulled off and headed north to watch the other squadrons. The 522 went in and received heavy enemy fire. When we reached the northern field, the 523 was getting the kitchen sink. I was very glad to be in the 524 and out of that mess.
One plane was lost; the Colonel. He made it back about four days later. He had been rescued by our grand troops and he had a very interesting story to tell. I hope his story is part of the 27th's history.
Payday. A routine for payday and for a few days after was a wild and wooley poker game in the Officer's Club. Two Texans presided over these games, Ed and Pappy by name. Pilots were paid base wage of their rank plus 50 percent flight pay plus 10 percent combat pay. Their pay could be higher than a ground officer two ranks their superior. Thus the two Texans loved to get the pilots in a poker game and separate them from some of this "easy money." The game was not for the faint hearted; it was table stakes. You could raise the bet whatever was in the pot. Only three games were permitted; five card stud, seven card stud and draw with nothing wild. I never played. Well, almost never.
I noticed that the Texans sat at opposite ends of the table with two pilots between them on one side and two pilots on the other. I don't know if they shared their winnings (or losses) but their system always seemed the same. One then the other would call and raise building up the pot. Nobody had to raise; you could depend on the Texans to do that.
One night, I was kibitzing the play. I was standing in back of one of my favorite flight leaders watching the game. He was having terrible luck. The worst had you can have in poker is second best. The hand is usually good enough to bet the farm but your three sevens are beaten by three tens. Finally, he left his seat; broke.
I was on my third schnapps and grapefruit juice and feeling pretty cocky as well as confident. "Hey, kid. Sit down and try your luck." And I sat down.
What my Texas friends didn't now was that my father played cards with me when I was old enough to hold them. The first game he taught me was Big Casino, Little Casino. Then came Blackjack and then Poker. He would correct me when I reacted too strongly to a good hand. It is difficult to have a poker face at seven years old. But I learned or I would lose all my matches which were our poker chips.
The first few hands, my luck was with me and I won some small pots. I was playing with their money which made me a little more reckless. The big hand was seven card stud. When I looked at my hole cards, I could not believe it. I had two sixes in the hole and a six up. The betting was heavy; I didn't have to raise once. Since I obviously was a little drunk and only called, no one paid any attention to me. As card after card was dealt, I was getting garbage; nothing matched. I couldn't have a straight or flush and nothing paired up. The Texans were drooling; call and bump, call and bump. Only four of us were in the game when the last card was dealt, a pilot from the 522 on the other side of the table, the two Texans and me.
It was down and dirty and when I looked at my hole card I had a pair to go with my threes, a full house! Poker was about to get very expensive. As I said, when there is a Texan or two in the game you never have to worry about raising. They will do it for you. It was like watching a tennis match; call and raise on my left then call and raise on my right. Finally, Ed on my left raised the bet, the pilot across from me called and Pappy on my right called! All I had to do was call the bet and the hand would be over but I had a mean streak of vengeance.
"What's the name of this game, gentlemen?" I asked somewhat facetiously.
"Table stakes poker." Was the reply.
A rough count of the pot was made and I raised that amount. Ed on my left folded, the pilot across from me folded and Pappy on my right said. "Kid, I know you have them but I got to see them." He threw in his money and revenge was mine.
Money could be sent home only to the maximum of your monthly pay. Supposedly this was to prevent black market money going into some of the GI's accounts. So I had all these poker winnings and I had to carry it around. I had been sending money home on a regular basis anyway and the family bank account built up to the point where I told my parents to pay off the mortgage. Our house was free and clear. Thank you, Texas!
We received word that Stuttgart had been captured. It was my day off and Irv asked me if I wanted to go with him to Stuttgart and liberate some booze for the bar. We checked out a weapons carrier and headed for Stuttgart. When we arrived we found the French soldiers were doing a masterful job of liberating. We would see them coming out of the bars with their arms loaded. We only got the dregs. Fruit brandies mostly with a couple bottles of schnapps here and there. But we did liberate two cases of pink champagne. When we returned to camp, Irv kept the pink champagne in our tent.
My Red Cross lady kept me well supplied with doughnuts. Once of my letters home started out like this:
Dear Mom and Dad,
You won't believe this but I am sitting here writing to you and dunking my doughnuts in pink champagne.
On the return of one of our missions, we ran into a flight of B-25s circling. They wanted to know if we were their escort and we replied no. They pleaded with us to take them in but our flight leader said he would call for permission first. Permission was granted and back in we went. The escort was uneventful. We landed. Two missions and one landing; a helluva lot better than one mission and three landings.
The German Wehrmacht was retreating rapidly. There was a problem, however. They would abandon a town but when our ground troops entered, the citizens of the town would use their weapons to snipe at our troops and kill a few. A tactic was developed of setting up loud speakers on the edge of town and requesting the Mayor to come out under a white flag. Some of my missions involved flying over towns that were reluctant to send out the Mayor. The town would be informed by loud speaker that the P-47s overhead would come down and strafe them if they didn't surrender. Sometimes they gave up and sometimes we strafed. They always eventually gave up with no loss to our troops. P-47s were feared. The German propaganda told their citizens that the American pilots were Chicago gangsters!
On these missions, we were always given a secondary target in case the town surrendered. One time, our secondary target was reporting to a ground communications unit for instructions. Another procedural wrinkle was assigning a pilot to the front lines to work with the ground troops and tell us what the ground commander wanted accomplished. Our troops were waiting on one side of the river getting ready to attack a very picturesque little town on the other side that was nestled between two hills. The liaison pilot instructed us to strafe the two hill tops because there were guns up there. One flight took one hill and the other flight took the other. I could not see the telltale wink of enemy guns firing so we just strafed the hills at random. It was getting dusk and we asked for final instructions before returning home.
"Yeah, give the town a good going over. We are going across pretty soon."
It seemed a shame to strafe that town. It looked like a picture postcard. We flew over our troops, went across the river and set a few buildings on fire.
Another secondary target was very interesting. We showed up at a fairly large town. There were a few multi-storied buildings. To the south of the town, on a hill were three of our tanks. We watched the tanks fire and looked at the town and saw a building disintegrate. And then we spied a German tank leaving town. It was huge and bad guy black. It tried to make it across an open field; a very bad mistake. Twelve P-47s did a round robin on that tank. Our efforts seemed futile. I know I made at least three passes myself. Then one of the armour piercing bullets rattled around inside that tank and set the ammo off. Whoom…whom…whom. It didn't go all at once but time after time. I am sure our tanks saw it from up on the hill. That made me feel very good.
I don't remember my 93rd mission but I remember landing and seeing the field encircled with A-26s. When I shut off the engine and the crew chief climbed up to help me out of the cockpit, I asked him what was going on. He told me the A-26 outfit could not land at their field because it was weathered in. As soon as it cleared, they would be taking off.
After the debriefing, I went out to look over the A-26s and their crews. When I graduated from Basic Training, most of the class went to single engine. I was hoping I would find an old Aviation Cadet buddy and I did.
Red Ramsey and I had boarded a troop train together in Pittsburgh, Pa. and had been together through Basic. I invited him up to the Officer's Club for a drink. We were sitting at a table recalling some of our Cadet good times when Ellis, the assistant Operations Officer walked up.
"Reasman, Joe wants to see you right now."
"What the hell for?"
"I don't know. Why don't you ask him!" And he gave me that crooked grin.
I asked Red to wait for me and as I approached Major Joe's office, I saw six other pilots waiting there. What the hell; a secret mission or what?
"Are they all here, Ellis?" Joe asked.
Joe had a big smile on his face and announced, "Men, I am proud to tell you that you are now First Lieutenants." And then he handed out silver bars for our collars. He didn't need to bother with me, I had polished my gold bar so much and so long that it was already silver. At least, it wasn't gold.
I returned to the bar to a celebration. Promotions always meant a party and the drinks were on the promoted. At least, I got to share expenses with six other guys. I do not remember much after that. I just barely remember going to bed at two in the morning, very inebriated. Guess who was awakened at five of the German wake up call? You guessed it. Me and two other very hung over brand new First Lieutenants. The Operations Officer had to be sadistic.
I slept in my GI shorts, swung out of bed and put on my GI brogans. I walked around in the chilly morning air, I poured cold water over my head, I brushed the fuzz off my teeth and when I dressed, I walked to the briefing room. I hated coffee then but I crank a couple of cups. Somebody told me it would wake me up. I didn't.
My 94th mission was a three flight search and destroy. I really was beyond caring. I would just play follow the leader and hope to hell we didn't find anything. At least nothing noisy.
But we did. A train. Didn't they know enough to hide when it got light? Down we went with guns blazing. Oh, oh. The sides of two of the cars dropped away…Flak cars and they started to return fire. I head never seen flak cars before but when somebody shoots at me I have a tendency to want to shoot back. Soon the guns were not firing at us. I don't know what was in those cars to warrant two flak cars to guard them but nothing exploded or burned. We returned to base. At the debriefing, one of the new First Looies said he blacked out leveling off for a landing and I believed him! Thank God, I had no more missions scheduled and I hit the sack.
One day, a few of us were sitting around the Pilot's Ready room when Captain Wasserman walked in. "I need four volunteers…You, you, you and you, he pointed. One of the "yous" was me. We followed him into the briefing room.
"You are to go on an escort mission. You won't get credit for a combat mission but you can log combat time. You are to meet a B-17 full of VIPs here," he pointed to the map, "And escort it up to the front lines. Just go where they go." He didn't know who the VIPs were…political, military, entertainers or what.
The Old Prospector was leading the flight and when we joined up with the B-17, he put me and my wingman on the left wing and he and his wingman on the right wing. The front is very easy to see. It was a solid line of smoke and dust across the face of Germany. The B-17 headed Northeast. I very dutifully kept my head on a swivel. We were protecting a precious cargo and I didn't want any surprises. When we were about ten miles from the front, the B-17 did a 180 and flew back to where we came from. "Hey," the Old Prospector yelled, "The front is back that way." Then he ordered me to cross over and join up into echelon right. "OK, follow the leader."
He started to do barrel rolls round the B-17 and then we did a loop off the right wing and then a loop off the left wing. Oh, Lordy, I thought. I don't know who those VIPs were but sure as the Good Lord made little green apples there was a very high ranking officer aboard and he was probably flying that damn boxcar. We were going to catch hell when we landed.
We didn't. But we gave Wasserman a good laugh when we told him what happened.
The rumors were flying about the end of the war but there were a few scary missions in store. On one mission we caught a German convoy in a valley between three hills. The approach to a strafing run was difficult. We would pop up over a hill, give a quick squirt from our guns and pull off. We were in more danger of hitting a hill or each other in the close confines o that valley. One of the planes popped up and gave a quick shot when he realized he was shooting at an ambulance. But it wasn't an ambulance. It was full ammo and it damn near blew the pilot our of the sky. At the debriefing, he claimed his engine quit for a second and so did his heart.
The next mission was an escort, usually a milk-run but not this one. Our three flights met a large group of B-26s. Our leader placed one flight to the right of the group, one flight to the left and his flight at six o'clock high. Dangerous Dave was my wingman. After dropping their bombs, we started to return to our lines. Somebody called out, "German jets six o'clock low!" Right under us. I started flipping up on my wing, knowing Dave could take care of himself no matter what I did. I saw a wing fly off a B-26 and another bend away from the group. Parachutes came out of two planes. I still didn't see the attackers. Then Dave cried out, "Let's go, Reasman."
I did a split S and directly in front of me was a German jet. I fired. I missed. I dropped my wing tanks and pushed my throttle to the fire wall and hit the water button. That damn jet left me like I was standing still.
Me 262 versus P-47
By this time Dave and I were below the cumulus clouds and we started to climb up through them. When we broke free, I saw a P-47 ahead of me and he started to turn toward us. I thought Maybe those jets were coming back. I turned for a quick look, saw nothing and, when I turned back, a parachute was floating down through the clouds. What happened? Who was it? Why was it? I saw no flak and there was no radio message. When I rejoined the flight, I saw it was the leader's wingman who was missing. Damn!
At the debriefing, we tired to spot the general area all this happened. Since I was lost most of the time I wasn't much help. I didn't know that when a pilot went down, a team was sent to that area when it was captured, to find out what happened. A few weeks later, the area was captured and Wasserman sent two teams to investigate. They found out nothing. But Wasserman came up with a brilliant idea. A lot of Polish DPs (displaced persons) were in the area, used by the Germans as forced labor. So he sent Lipiarz, our only Polish speaking pilot
The Polish DPs knew and led Lip to a Catholic church yard and showed him the grave. The pilot had been killed when he landed. A tragic story to end a tragic mission.
Maintenance was becoming a problem. Too many planes were returning to base, usually because of a very strong odor of fuel in the cockpit. One of those planes landed and on his way back to the parking area, the plane exploded. The explosion blew every inspection plate off the wing. There was a couple dozen of them hanging from the wing on their little chains. Except for a pair of dirty drawers, the pilot was OK.
To counteract having short flights, a spare plane would taxi out with the flight and wait to see if anyone would turn back. A pilot knew as soon as he was in the air if the plane was going to be a problem. He would turn back and the spare plane would take off and join the flight.
One time, Dangerous Dave was the spare pilot. He sat on the end of the runway and, when it appeared no one would abort, Dave asked the tower for permission to take-off. I am sure the tower was curious about that request but gave him the "go ahead".
Dave loved to know his airplane. He wanted to know what it could do and what it couldn't do; a sign of a good pilot, I guess. Dave was curious about how fast the P-47 would get off the ground. The usual procedure was to push everything on the throttle quadrant to the firewall and roar down the runway. In about a half mile we would have flying speed and jerk up the landing gear. Dave tried something different.
For this experiment, Dave rolled down half flaps, he stood on the brakes and pushed the throttle forward. When he couldn't hold it with the brakes, he released them and hit the water button. The Jug leaped off the ground. By the time Dave reached the tower, he was sixty feet in the air. The tower was in a panic and screamed, "Blue five, are you all right?"
Dave very calmly replied, "Yeah, I'm OK. Landing instructions, please." Dangerous Dave strikes again.
The PR Officer for the 27th was putting out some garbage about fly 100 missions and get a ticket home. I was getting close and actually looked forward to that mission. When I landed after my 100th mission, my first stop after debriefing was the PR Officer.
"Hey, I just completed my hundredth mission. Where's that ticket home?"
He looked at me like I was an idiot. "We can't spare you. Nobody is going home." I never cared for PRs after that.
After my 103rd mission, I was given a weeks leave in Nancy, France. The hotel wasn't much but I had a room to myself and the sergeant who ran the place didn't enforce the rule of no girls. The hotel was over a bar were a lot of beautiful girls hung out. I don't care what you say, French girls are different. They look at you and seem to say, "You are a man and I am a woman. Go for it!" There is no game-playing. Is coy in the French vocabulary? Between rum cokes and the French women, my twitches subsided considerably.
We were very interested in the news. Rumors were flying about the unconditional surrender of the Germans. The meeting up between the Russians and the Americans. And then while I was in Nancy, the war ended. The French hit the streets in a wild celebration. The street lights came on for the first time since this whole darn thing started. They weren't very bright but they were on. I remember leaning against one of those light poles and watching. I felt very much alone but relieved. My worst fears evaporated. The next day, I returned to Biblis.
What do you do with a fighting machine when there is no one to fight? We pilots speculated about starting a war with Uncle Joe. That's Uncle Joe as in Joe Stalin. And, of course, the war with Japan was still raging. Would we head for the Pacific or would we get to go home first? I remember an award ceremony. Some General come in and gave out medals. Stevenson received his Silver Star. I think I got a gold star for attendance; just like in Sunday school.
Somebody had the brilliant idea we should keep up our flying skills and to impress the Germans we were still around and in force. So we went up as a group and flew formation for around an hour over various parts of Germany. It takes a long time to land that many airplanes so those of us who had to wait our turn took to buzzing the nearby towns. We were scaring hell out of the little kids. When we went roaring down Main Street, the little ones would run to their mothers, terrified.
As I have said before not all combat missions were dangerous and some non-combat were dangerous. On one of these mass group slights, I escaped death or, at least, a terrible crash when another group flew into us on the side I was on. I did an immediate split S and when I hit the deck, I looked up and saw planes all over the sky. It was a miracle there was no mid-air collisions. I had had it. I returned to base and landed. I never flew a P-47 again. That was my last flight. Soon, I had my orders to return to the states. I was still the youngest pilot in the group.
I flew back on C-47s with a troop carrier outfit by way of Africa, Ascencion Island, Brazil, Puerto Rico and landed in Savannah, Georgia on July 18, 1945. Exactly one year from the day I left the US. An incredible year.
Extracted from The Life And Flying Times of Charles Dills