Monday, August 5, 2013

A Jimmy Stewart story (or two)


   One of the first things I discovered about the Kassel Mission after meeting Walter Hassenpflug in Germany in 1998 was the connection between the great actor Jimmy Stewart and the 445th Bomb Group. Stewart was an original squadron commander in the 445th and flew most of his combat missions with the group, and although he was not with the 445th that fateful day of Sept. 27, 1944, he was very shaken up by the disaster and took part in the debriefing of some of the returning crews.
   After returning from Europe in the fall of 1998 I immediately turned to the Internet for information on the Kassel Mission. I discovered a reference to John Harold Robinson's book "A Reason to Live," which I immediately ordered. Although "Robby" finished his missions before the Kassel Mission, the book gave me an understanding of the mental and physical stresses of flying combat missions. (The book went through I think six printings and is a collector's item, but I loaned my copy to someone and haven't seen it since). Interestingly, I met Robinson at an 8th Air Force reunion and said his book would make an excellent movie, and he said he refused to option the movie rights because he thought "Memphis Belle" was so inaccurate. I say that because when I saw "Memphis Belle" I thought wow, how authentic. Shows how much I knew!
   I also found an entry on a B-24 bulletin board made by Tim Crandall, who noted that his father was in the 445th. I contacted Tim, and he put me in touch with his dad, Gene Crandall. I added Gene to my interviewing trip in 1999, and he suggested that we meet at a Cracker Barrel in Battle Creek, Mich. Gene brought along another veteran of the 445th, Floyd Ogilvy, who completed his missions in August of 1944, a few weeks before the Kassel Mission that Sept. 27th. I love Cracker Barrels and have had many a fine breakfast there -- I say there because they all seem the same -- but the background noise made the tape a little difficult to transcribe. Nevertheless, Gene, who was a mechanic, told a couple of stories about Jimmy Stewart.
Gene Crandall and Floyd Ogilvy

Battle Creek, Mich., April 12, 1999

Gene Crandall: I don’t know him all that well, but my son wrote him a letter and said that his dad was always talking about Jimmy Stewart, and I was telling him what a great guy he was, and he wrote a letter and told Jimmy Stewart he really enjoyed  "It’s a Wonderful Life" and that his dad was always talking about him, so Jimmy Stewart sent me a letter. I didn’t know him all that well. I talked to him about half a dozen times.

Aaron Elson: You had mentioned on the phone that he almost crashed.

Gene Crandall: Yes, it was at Sioux City. He was doing practice landings at night and there was a bad thunderstorm and he came in to land. He must have been a couple hundred feet high, and a bolt of lightning went right across the front of the canopy, and he lost it. He dropped it down and snapped off the nose gear, which was the weakest part of the landing equipment, and then the whole airplane went down the runway at like 45 degrees, and the sparks flew out from the landing gear strut, just like a dragging wheel. So I went out there with a couple other guys in a jeep, and Stewart got out of it and he was shaking and trembling, and all shook up, because he just damn near died. And the colonel was there. The colonel says, "You didn’t see anything, did you?"
   We said, "No, Sir, we didn’t see a thing."

Aaron Elson: What kind of plane was it?

Gene Crandall: A B-24. We were in training at Sioux City, and then we went to Mitchell, South Dakota, to a satellite field after that. And from there we went to New York, Camp Shanks, and then we went over on the Queen Mary.

Aaron Elson: And you had mentioned an incident at Thanksgiving?

Gene Crandall: Oh, with Jimmy Stewart?

Aaron Elson: Yes.

Gene Crandall: Well, I went to, temporarily, before he got there -- like you guys [Ogilvy] went through South America, and I went over to Cambridge, me and the chief inspector -- they told us we were going to school. What we went over there and did was re-work these patrol airplanes that were looking for submarines. And they were all painted blue, they had sea waves on the bottom, and the engines, the sparkplugs hadn’t been changed for 400 hours. That’s a no-no. You should never, never let an airplane like that get more than a hundred hours, and the sparkplugs were snapping off right into the cylinder head, and we had to take little hacksaw blades and cut the shredded part out. Then we took a nail and put a wire around it with a battery and made a magnet and we reached out two sides of the cylinder and got the filings out. But anyhow, I was over there, and this airplane lands, and it’s a B-24. This Ten-uv-us lands, it says T-e-n u-v u-s, and I says, "Damn, that must be some kind of a Latin name." And it struck me eventually that that was "Ten of us" in a crew. And that was Jimmy Stewart’s airplane. And he got out, and I went over to it, and he looked at me and he said, "What the hell are you doing here?"
   And I said, "We’re over here, Sir, fixing these patrol bombers. They were using them for the submarines."
   And he says, "You won’t be here long." And within two hours, a 6-by-6 came and got us and we went back over to Tibenham. But see, he was awful sharp. He was a hell of a lot smarter than he appears in the movies. He was an architect.
Aaron Elson: I didn’t know that.

Gene Crandall: Yeah, he graduated from college with an architecture degree, out of Yale.

Floyd Ogilvy: I think he graduated from Princeton, I’m not sure. [Stewart graduated from Princeton]

Gene Crandall: Well, anyhow, he said, "You won’t be here long," and then we were sent back. And then on Thanksgiving, he came down to the mess hall and he was O.D., officer of the day, and he said, "Sergeant, can I sit with you?"
   I said, "Yes, Sir." He was the squadron commander. And he sat down and he said, "How do you like the turkey?"
   And I said, "Well, the outside’s all right, but the inside’s all frozen."
   And he said, "Oh, my God." And then he got up and he went back, he found the mess captain drunk with a bunch of bottles around. They broke the mess sergeant down to private. Stewart didn’t do that. And they broke the captain down to second lieutenant and put him on the China Clipper, you know, that dishwashing machine. And he had to stay on there for a whole month. So Jimmy Stewart wasn’t exactly soft.
   The last time I saw him, he’d been on one of those 12-hour missions, I thought he went to Berlin – [to Ogilvy] were they going to Berlin when you were there? I was checking him out when they hit the ground, because he was flying our airplane, a 700th airplane. I think he flew the 700th Squadron’s airplanes because the Germans were after him, it would have been a great coup if they’d have shot down Jimmy Stewart.
Aaron Elson: So they knew about him?

Gene Crandall: Oh, hell yeah. The second day we were there Lord Haw Haw said, "Welcome 445th, Colonel Terrell.

Aaron Elson: He said that, really?

Gene Crandall: Yeah. Lord Haw Haw was the German propaganda man.

Aaron Elson: And did he mention Stewart by name?

Gene Crandall: No. But they knew about him.

Aaron Elson: Now you being a ground crew chief, you were in the 700th Squadron?

Gene Crandall: Yes.

Aaron Elson: You were in charge of one plane?

Gene Crandall: No. I was the chief propeller specialist. I was also a B-24 specialist and I did troubleshooting on all airplanes, that kind of thing. Changed engines and propellers and all that. And hydraulics.

Aaron Elson: That must have been demanding, especially with all the damage.

Gene Crandall: Oh, it was very exciting. Hell, that was the greatest adventure of our life. You know, from four o’clock in the morning until ... well, it depends on the day. In the wintertime it used to get daylight at 9 o’clock in the morning, then it’d get dark at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. And then in the summertime it would get daylight about 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, and it wouldn’t get dark until 11 or 12 o’clock at night, because England’s a long way north. Did you notice that?

Floyd Ogilvy: No, I didn’t ...

Gene Crandall: That’s so far north, it’s almost as far north as Hudson Bay. That’s a latitude or whatever it is that’s way up there.

Aaron Elson: Did you work overnight?

Gene Crandall: Oh, yeah.

Aaron Elson: How did you work in the dark, with the blackouts?

Gene Crandall: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in a goddamn blackout trying to put parts together that I couldn’t see. One night I was working on an engine and we had a tent that went over the engines. And we got all pissed off, so we turned on a light. And we shouldn’t have done that. A Spitfire buzzed us, and you could actually feel the breeze from that sonofagun, because that was a no-no. The Germans were always looking around there trying to find us. And we had anti-aircraft guns, but we never fired them, because we never wanted to give away where we were. If they came over, I don’t know what kind of airplane it was, I think it was a diesel engine, they’d throttle black and they’d look and look and they’d drop real yellow flares. Their flares are real distinctly yellow and ours were real white, so we knew they were Germans. But they didn’t bother us too much. The worst thing was the buzz bombs. Toward the end of the war they were shooting those buzz bombs one every couple of hours. And when the wind blew just right they’d go right over Tibenham, and then we’d all wait until we heard them go over. If they ever stopped we all hit the deck, because they’d be coming down someplace.

Aaron Elson: Did any of them explode nearby?

Gene Crandall: No.

Aaron Elson: Did you get attached to any particular plane or crew?

Gene Crandall: You tried not to, because these guys came and went at an ungodly rate. We lost, as I understand it, 150 bombers. And I got to really like a couple of guys, like one captain, I don’t know what his name was, but he was a West Point graduate. He used to come down to the line all the time on his day off, and I used to give him lectures about flushing their propellers all the time because the damn oil congealed and the governors wouldn’t work. Did you ever have that problem?

Floyd Ogilvy: Shoot, I was just a gunner. I didn’t know what was going on.

Gene Crandall: But this guy was a wonderful guy. And of course, he got blown away. And that happened so many times, we just got to the point where we did our job and tried not to be buddy buddy with them. It was for self-protection. And even, one day I saw a picture of the body bags, and all that, that’s 50 years later, I had all that crap down in my subconscious, and I woke up in the middle of the night screaming and yelling and thinking I was back in the damn war. And I’d never had a dream like that before. But that shows you how you, I’m sure that happened to you. Hasn’t that happened to you?

Aaron Elson: Did you have flashbacks?

Floyd Ogilvy: No. The thing that, most loud noises, I still remember the flak, because that was our major problem. Fighters we didn’t have a problem with. Fortunately when I was there flak was the real problem. And when I go to a military funeral out here at Fort Custer and they shoot those guns off, I know they’re gonna go, I still jump.

Aaron Elson: Describe the flak.

Floyd Ogilvy: Describe the flak to you? Well, it came up in different ways. For example, we went to Berlin and they had what we called block flak, where I mean it was like a city block, the guns would all come up.

Aaron Elson: A city block?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yeah, it was a block, we called a block flak. They didn’t track you. They knew your altitude. They knew you were gonna fly about 24,000 feet, and they would shoot those up. Of course I’d be chucking that chaff out, trying to screw up their radar. And so it was really a very frightening thing, and there was nothing you can do about it. That was our major problem.

Aaron Elson: Did you see planes to the left or right of you get hit?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yes. I had one off of my right wing, it was shot down over Belgium. It took a direct hit right behind the pilot’s area, and it peeled off. My pilot said "Check and see if there are any chutes." I checked. I didn’t see any chutes. And as it went down, one of the wings came off, it looked like a leaf.

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