Friday, August 9, 2013

Five Acres of Bombs and a Drunken Angel

(Part 3 of my conversation with Gene Crandall and Floyd Ogilvy, except Ogilvy just left, so this is really just with Crandall)

Part 1: A Jimmy Stewart Story (or Two)

Part 2:Two Guys Talking B-24s

Part 3
(this conversation took place in 1998 in a Cracker Barrel in Battle Creek, Mich.)

Aaron Elson: There really is tremendous interest in the war. I get questions from high school kids. "I need to find a veteran to interview for school." And I hook them up and they do it by computer.

Gene Crandall: Well, I suppose this "Saving Private Ryan" really ... But you know, I watch a lot of these periodicals and things, newsreels and all that, and I’ve learned more about the Second World War, what I was telling you about bombing Switzerland...

Aaron Elson: Oh yes. Tell me again.

Gene Crandall: Well, you know this never has come to light, and I knew we bombed Switzerland. But until the Swiss got accused of hoarding the gold for the Germans and even the gold teeth out of the Holocaust victims, I never heard this until about three months ago, and they finally admitted it. But one day I was talking to these guys and I said, "Where are you going?"
   And they said, "We’re going to go to Switzerland."
   And I said, "You can’t bomb Switzerland, they’re neutral."   But they came back again, and I said, "Well, where’d you go?"
   And they said, "We went over and bombed Switzerland."   I said, "What the hell did you do that for?"
   And they said, "Because they were making ball bearings," and I heard that it was seven miles inside the border. They bombed the hell out of it. And then we apologized to the Swiss and gave them seven million dollars for destroying the building. But this same guy told me one day, he said, "I’ve got 24 missions." And he’s from up here, not too far, I won’t tell you. And he said, "I’ll see you after the war."
   And I said, "What do you mean you’ll see me after the war?"   And he said, "Well, we’ve got 24 missions in and we’ve got to fly 25, so we’re gonna abort when we get close to Switzerland."
   And I said, "That’s a hell of a note."   And he said, "Oh no, because if we go back we’ll have to go to the South Pacific." So he never came back. They aborted and went to Switzerland. And I saw newsreels, film, of about 30 bombers over there in Switzerland. And the Swiss were very upset that the Americans were over there. But this guy told me, boy, he says, "They’ve got a lot of beautiful women over there, and a lot of booze." And he says, "Since we put in our 25 missions, by god, we’re gonna enjoy the rest of the war."

Aaron Elson: I’ll be darned.

Gene Crandall: You didn’t never know about that?

Aaron Elson: John Robinson in his book "A Reason to Live," have you read that?

Gene Crandall: No.

Aaron Elson: He was one of the originals, he went over, he kept a diary.

Gene Crandall: Did they know he kept a diary?

Aaron Elson: I don’t know if they knew, but he kept it and when he retired he went back to it and he wrote just a day by day account, what type of bombs he carried, the things that he witnessed, you couldn’t dispute. And he said one day that there was a bombing mission near Switzerland, and he saw two perfectly good B-24s peel off and head to Switzerland.

Gene Crandall: You know, at one time, the generals were very upset that they were aborting so much into Switzerland, and into Sweden, and they were gonna court-martial and so forth. But if they aborted and went to Switzerland and they had 25 missions, and boy, let me tell you those missions were stacked up so they had 100 percent chance of getting killed, you sometimes wonder if they were smart to do it.

Aaron Elson: How can you blame them?

Gene Crandall: Well, I guess a B-24 cost about a half-million in those days. But if they put in 25 missions they had a hundred percent chance of getting killed, like this guy [Floyd Ogilvy] put in 30, he had a hundred percent chance of getting killed. He’s a pretty nice old guy. He’s getting old. I met him about 20 years ago one time down at an Irish pub. He’s aged quite a bit since then.

Aaron Elson: How old are you now?

Gene Crandall: 77. Oh yeah, in fact I’m gonna start another business selling air purifiers.

Aaron Elson: How many kids do you have?

Gene Crandall: Four. Well, I’ve got four and I’ve got an adopted daughter, I’ve got five, really. And you talked to Tim. He’s a preacher.

Aaron Elson: Oh, is he?

Gene Crandall: Yeah. He and I totally disagree on that, you know, because I think it’s a con artist, there’s so many damn preachers taking people’s money, I’ve always been dead against that. But he’s got a black belt in karate.

Aaron Elson: Really.

Gene Crandall: Yeah, he was in the military too. He asked me to be sure and tell you when you came here, but I called him twice and he’s got, you know, when you call in and you get that bebop from the computer.

* * *

Gene Crandall: I think the 445th got three presidential unit citations, is that right?

Aaron Elson: I don’t know.

Gene Crandall: Because they gave me one one time with a couple of stars. And I’ve got so many battle stars, the Ardennes and Europe, and I was just in a ground crew. About the only flying I did was test flying.

Aaron Elson: But did you get credit if your planes took part in those?

Gene Crandall: Oh yeah. You’re part of the group. That’s how come I got these battle stars.
we were only there for about 19 or 20 months, but I was with the outfit from the time it was organized in Wendover.

Aaron Elson: Do you remember the bomb dump explosion?

Gene Crandall: Oh, hell yes.

Aaron Elson: What happened then?

Gene Crandall: Uhh, the bomb dump, there’s another base, about, I don’t know, it must have been three, four miles away, maybe five miles. And they had these super sensitive British bombs that didn’t need a fuse. They’d just go off, and they were big. And these guys, now this is what I heard, I wasn’t there, these bombs, they kicked them off a ramp and they had 6-by-6s, you know, with those V-figure that they load bombs in on with a hoist. And they kicked these bombs off, and I heard there were ten or twelve trucks there, and all the bombs went off. And the damn bombs went off for three days.

Aaron Elson: Three days?

Gene Crandall: Yes. As they blow up, then it would heat up the next, and go on and on. And it ruined all the airplanes on the base, because we went over and got the parts off them.

Aaron Elson: It ruined the planes on the base?

Gene Crandall: Oh yeah. Because the blast ruined the tail sections and all, blew them apart, see. Yeah, that thing went off for three days. And our base had like five acres of bombs, and they were like six feet high. Boy, the civilians really kept us supplied. I think the civilians won the war.

Aaron Elson: Five acres of bombs?

Gene Crandall: Well, boy, that’s a big operation. And the bombs all came in wooden boxes, then they’d stack them up. Well, we dropped, man, we flew 350 missions. Three hundred and fifty times about 20 airplanes, that’s a lot of, nowadays they don’t call them missions ...

Aaron Elson: Sorties.

Gene Crandall: Sorties, yeah. That’s each airplane. But the B-24 was a very dangerous airplane. Not only did it leak gas to beat hell, it wasn’t constructed in such a way that you could crash land it with any success. In fact, one time, three airplanes, when LeMay took over and they were flying close formation, and three of them collided right over my head. The two B-24s just came apart, disintegrated. And a 17 came over and the tail was cut off, and it went into the woods right by the base there. And then a lady that lived in the woods went over there to try to help them and it blew up and killed her. And we took up a collection for her children. But damn, I was standing there and watching and seeing all this orange-black fire, and I’m thinking, "My God, this can’t be real." And then the parts started flying, dropping. But we had a lot of wrecks around our base. In fact, one time I was working on a pathfinder. I was working right off the end of the runway to a parking stand, and this is the time when the Bulge was going on and they needed air support desperately. And I’m working on this airplane and I’d just changed the governor and ran it up, and I got out of it, and our line chief came up. He was an old military guy, the only time you ever saw him, they said he was a drunk, but he’s my drunken angel if you will, and he said, "Crandall, get the hell in this weapons carrier."
   And I jumped in there and threw the bike in the back, because I had a bike, I had to, to go from airplane to airplane with. And we took off down the perimeter, and one came -- this was when they were taking off in a dead fog -- one came right out of the fog and clobbered the one I’d just been at, and the damn explosion hit us in the back, and it felt like our kidneys were floating. So we lost twenty guys right there. We lost a lot of airplanes. We lost about 150 bombers.

Aaron Elson: What was the pathfinder?

Gene Crandall: A pathfinder is a radar ship. When they first had radar, they could discern from the radar some things, and a pathfinder had a radar they could look down and see, like through the fog and so forth, and see cities and all. And they had about two or three pathfinders to every mission, and the best navigators and the best bombardiers flew in the pathfinder. And at the end of the war, the pathfinders, they would all clue in on this pathfinder, and he had a tail light, and as he would signal, they’d drop bombs. And that’s usually a major or colonel or something that was the navigator or the guy who was controlling, as they got better and better. I’ve seen pictures of bombardments where they’re trying to hit a bridge and they dropped 200 goddamn bombs and never hit the bridge. You know, these new smart bombs are pretty neat. Boy, they dropped a lot of bombs over in Germany. They used to say, they used to come back across the English Channel and salvo their bombs. And they said you should be able to walk across the damn English Channel with all the bombs that are in there. Because they couldn’t land with their bombs.
   That was a very thrilling time. Not only that, it was great teamwork. Jesus, you had 5,000 guys in a bomb group.

Aaron Elson: What an experience that must be.

Gene Crandall: Well, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I went to college, and I started a business, and I had a hell of an exciting life, and got a couple of divorces, the whole thing.

Aaron Elson: What had you done before?

Gene Crandall: I grew up in Pontiac, and I ended up working in Detroit making anti-aircraft guns, just before the war, and that’s where I got a background in gears and all that crap. And I tried to get in the Navy as a pilot. I passed everything, but every time they’d check me, my pulse was too great. So then I went in the military over here, and they gave me tests for two days, the next thing I know I’m in Biloxi, Mississippi, and it says "Through these portals pass the finest airmen in the world." They never told you anything during the war. Then I went through the B-24 school, see. That, and we had the same training pilots did, like 4 o’clock in the morning through obstacle courses and all that crap. Then they had to eventually stop that because too many guys were having a nervous breakdown. And then they sent me over to Illinois, what’s the name of that, Champaign, Illinois, and sent me to advanced specialist school, where I got engines and propellers and all that.

Aaron Elson: And you enlisted or were you drafted?

Gene Crandall: I enlisted in the Navy, and they turned me down because I’d get too excited, and then they drafted me. And my wife’s uncle was the head of the draft board. He wanted to be sure nobody thought he was partial. He was a judge. But I learned more in the Air Force than I ever learned in my life. Well, you know, when you’re in a combat outfit, for instance, these pilots used to want to abort an airplane, or ruin it. So they’d start the starter, and you had to nurse the starter, it’d go rrrrrrrr, so they’d start the starter and get it up to speed, and then they’d mesh it, push a button, so they’d take their hand off the starter, and then they’d remix it again. And the second time they did it tore all the dogs out. So they’d say, "Well, we don’t have to go today,"  because the airplane won’t fly. So these guys, we got a big long spun G cord, I don’t know if you know what that is, but it’s a big long rubber cord, and we got leather and we made a pocket and we put it around the propeller and we took this damn 50-foot spun G cord and put it on the back of a jeep, put the top up on the jeep so when we pulled it and the damn thing let go, it wouldn’t hit us in the head. Then they drove off sideways to the airplane and boy, when that spun G cord got stretched out there about 100 feet, and then kicked that engine, boy, that started. These guys invented it. And the crew chief, or the flight chief, would get in there and set the controls, so nobody could say the damn thing wouldn’t run. And by god, we’d get ’em up there.

Aaron Elson: Now you mentioned the term said dogs ...

Gene Crandall: Dogs, they’re catch gears. In other words, they fit in a slot and so forth, and when the clutch is engaged they grab hold of another gear and turn the engine, see. Oh, those guys invented a lot of stuff. See, these were a bunch of farmboys, or guys, like I grew up pretty much out in the country but not really on a farm, but, yeah, before I did, I worked in a farm too. Mostly we were just boys out of the Depression, and when I went to college, the professors in college said there’ll never be another group like the guys in the Second World War, and I said, "Aw, you’re crazy. Hell, there are good men all over."
   They said, "Yeah, but just think about it. These guys grew up in the Depression. If they didn’t work, they didn’t eat. And they knew when they went to war they may never come back." Like I sold everything I owned when I went to war.

Aaron Elson: Really?

Gene Crandall: Oh, hell yeah. I was sure I was gonna get killed. Actually, when I went in was when Rommel chased the American army 120 miles through that Kasserine Pass or whatever the hell it was. So I thought, boy, the chances of getting, they didn’t call anything R&R in those days. You know, you went to war, and if the war was over you went home. So I got rid of what I had. But it was a wonderful experience.
   Where are you gonna stay tonight?
Aaron Elson: My next stop is in Knoxville. I’m gonna drive a couple hours, that way I won’t have as far to go tomorrow.

Gene Crandall: When I retired I went out to California. I cruised all the way out there, out through Nevada, and I got nailed for driving under the influence in Nevada, and Jesus Christ, it took me a month to get out of there. Then I went down through California and Arizona. I don’t drink anymore, but I, it used to be a part of that masculine mystique, you know. Yeah, you’re, aren’t you Jewish?

Aaron Elson: Yes.

Gene Crandall: We had a Jewish guy in our outfit that was a real scream. He was a corporal. And I came in the barracks one night and he was just having a damn fit, and I said to him, "Well what the hell’s the matter with you?"
   And he said, "Somebody sold one of my stores."
   I said, "What the hell are you talking about?"
   And he said, "I own shoe stores all the way from Maine to Florida."
   And I said, "No shit." Boy, he must be a multi-millionaire. And he never said a word about anything like that. He used to get neurotic once in a while. He was just a corporal. But we had all kinds of weird guys in the service. A real interesting time, though, I’ll tell you. I loved it. I never learned more in my life. And of course, when you go through an experience like that, and you watch the American will, might, conquer the world all the way from Germany to Japan and God knows every other place, you know in your mind that anything that you want to do bad enough you can do. And you know at that time that anything in this world is possible if you are determined. But that gave me confidence all my life."

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