Friday, August 30, 2013

Two Foxes and a Pocket Bible


Eugene George tells his story during a trip to Germany. Photo by Linda Dewey.

   Walter Eugene George was the co-pilot on Donald Brent's crew on the Kassel Mission. I interviewed him over lunch in a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it must have been a good one because he drove all the way from Austin to meet me. Because of the background noise in the restaurant, I did not make an audio CD of our conversation.
   His is one of many dramatic accounts of the Kassel Mission I've been fortunate to have chronicled.
   Eugene George died on Jan. 16 of this year. He was 90 years old.

                                                          Eugene George

                                                San Antonio, Texas, Aug. 29, 2001

Aaron Elson: How old were you when you went into the service?

Eugene George: I was called to active duty in February of ’43. I’d been on a standby reserve before that. In February of  ’43 I would have been 20, 19 or 20.

Aaron Elson: Had been you been to the university yet?

Eugene George: Yes, I’d gone to the university about two years.

Aaron Elson: Of Texas?

Eugene George: Yes.

Aaron Elson: Were you called into the Army?

Eugene George: No. I joined the Air Force to go into cadet pilot training and was on standby for that.

Aaron Elson: So you were in the Army Air Force?

Eugene George: Yes.

Aaron Elson: And what position did you wind up in?

Eugene George: I ended up in pilot training. There were three groups, a pilot, navigator and bombardier.

Aaron Elson: You were a co-pilot or a navigator?

Eugene George: I was a co-pilot, but my wings were a pilot. I mean I graduated as a pilot. I flew with Brent as a co-pilot but I qualified as a pilot and logged pilot time in addition to co-pilot time.

Aaron Elson: How many missions did you fly?

Eugene George: I flew 17 missions and aborted one. We had an engine shot out, so that one didn’t count.

Aaron Elson: So the Kassel was your 18th mission?

Eugene George: 17th.

Aaron Elson: Which missions were your most memorable?

Eugene George: My first mission was to Paris. We bombed Orly Airport. The Germans were using it as a backup field, and there were some dirigible hangars, very famous ones built in  1918, and I really hated to bomb these. But the thing that was most amazing was you couldn’t see the ground because of such low fog in Paris, but the Eiffel Tower stuck straight out of that fog.

Another one was Nancy. We bombed a fuel dump there, and as we left the target, the tail gunner called me and said, “Lieutenant, you’ve got to see this.” I got up in the top turret and looked back, and this big black smoke came up through the clouds. I remember those.

One mission took us over the island of Helgoland. I never knew why they routed us over Helgoland because the reputation was that that’s where they retired the best flak gunners in the German artillery. I was flying on the wing of the lead airplane, and I saw a flak burst come up. It was 88 millimeter flak, you could tell the difference between that and 105, and there were two that bracketed right on that lead aircraft. I saw the two bursts and I knew the third burst would get him, and the fourth burst would get us, so I racked the plane out of formation, and the third burst got him and the fourth burst missed us.

On the mission we aborted, we came home on three engines. When we got on the ground, there was a fragment of something in the engine that was shot out. The crew chief said “Don’t touch that thing!” It was a nose fuse. We’d had a direct hit on that engine, and the nose fuse was still active. It hadn’t exploded. The shell had broken off before it exploded.

Aaron Elson: What happened the morning of the Kassel mission?

Eugene George: We had a briefing, of course. One was awakened, oh, as early as 3 a.m., and we went in for breakfast. We had a flying officers’ mess and we had a ground officers’ mess and we had an enlisted men’s mess. The flying officers’ mess was considered the worst of the three, and the ground officers’ mess was the best. We would take our wings off and go in there at times, and the food was better. This upset us somewhat, but on that mission, the food was so bad that morning. They did have some canned peaches, and that’s all I ate for breakfast. I had not started drinking coffee yet. I learned to drink ersatz coffee when I was imprisoned in Germany because that was the hot beverage during the cold winter.

We went into the briefing, and there would be a chart on the wall, and the target would be located. There would be possible areas of flak listed, and as I recall where our IP would be located, there’d be some possible alternatives. We would get a weather report, and be told what to expect. We would be told about fighter protection, if it was English or American and what it would be. On the long missions we would link up with P-38s which were very easily identified, and the Mustang with that big cowling was easily identified, and we could identify German aircraft. But generally we would then get our parachutes and check out an escape kit, and go out and wait under the airplane until the control tower fired a flare, then start up the engines.

As I recall the run to Kassel was at 23,500 feet. I was not aware of any mishap in navigation until I heard a discussion over the intercom among the navigators. What upset me was that they were discussing over the radio that we were off course, and of course the Germans could hear this. Now, I say the navigators, I think this was two navigators that were discussing over the lead navigator. And as part of this discussion I heard the lead pilot say “Stay in close and follow me.”

We also knew we were without fighter protection, and there was some communication to try to get to our fighters. I also remember our tail gunner saying “There are fighters coming in from the rear.”

I said, “That’s great.”

And he said, “They’re not ours.”

So I knew they were approaching from the rear. Of course I didn’t see any of this.

I was very much aware of the fact that we were under fire, and what made me aware of it was our own guns started firing. And also, the German artillery was sort of like patters of rain on the cockpit, but our own guns were making much more noise. My concentration was right on that wing. I was totally locked in to keeping the aircraft in formation. I knew we were being hit, but the first, see, I was flying the airplane and I was aware that we were dangerously hit when I was watching engine instruments and I thought the engine was burning, which it was, and I could see  the engine right next to me was burning. I didn’t know if I should put the fire extinguisher or not. I didn’t, and Brent was still just sitting there. So I pushed the bailout button, and I gave the crew time enough where I thought they would bail out and go through the procedures that we had learned when leaving the aircraft.

     I tried to raise the rear of the airplane and the front of the airplane on the intercom, and I couldn’t get anything from either direction. I knew we’d been hit, but I didn’t know whether something had happened to them. I could see flak coming on the nose of the airplane because it was in front of me, and the Germans were approaching from the rear, coming up, rolling over and doing a split S and down, coming out. I saw one of them do this when I was getting the top turret gunner out.

     After I gave him enough time to get out, I could see, in the cockpit area, the radio operator and the engineer, the top turret gunner, were supposed to leave on the sound of the alarm, open the bomb bays, and we would keep on flying the airplane until they got clear. Then we would go out. I went out and the top turret gunner was, whose name was Constant S. Galuszewski, he was from East Tonawanda, New York, and the radio operator was named Sam Weiner, who was from the Los Angeles area. But he was still in his turret, and I had to crawl up there and jerk him by the seat of the pants. Weiner didn’t even have his parachute harness on. So I jerked Galuszewski out of the turret, but in doing that I saw the German plane turning and splitting S. After having made his run, a beautiful airplane, very close, as close as to the other end of, well, three-quarters of the way to the other end of this room. And I got Weiner’s harness and shoved it at him, and opened the door into the bomb bay, and it was just a mass of flame. The fuel gauges, which were on the left, were spitting like blowtorches, and the bomb bay doors were closed and we would have been trapped if they had remained closed. They operated hydraulically. There were fires all over the place in the bomb bay. It’s amazing, I’d see areas of flame chasing up pipes and pipework. And the switch to open the bomb bay doors was right between those two blowtorches which were the fuel gauges. I thought I could hit that switch and if we had hydraulic power, I could open the bomb bay doors. If we didn’t, I’d have to wind it, and I didn’t think I could survive in the flames. But I could jump through all of this flame on the catwalk to get there, and I hit the switch on the way over to it, and I jumped through and got there. And the bomb bay doors opened.

     But I still had the responsibility of these two enlisted men. So I went back through those blowtorches. Galuszewski was just sort of standing there in a daze. I started snapping Weiner’s harness on him. Everybody had chest packs. I had a back pack. I’d been off oxygen for a while to do all of this, and I didn’t know if my parachute was burned when I walked through the fire. I’d walked through the fire and I walked back through the fire.

     While I was standing over Weiner and getting him put back together, Brent came by and told Weiner to hurry up and he went ahead and bailed out. He went through the door into the flaming area. I never knew whether he went back to check on people in the waist or whether he went on out or what happened. Or whether he was injured in going out, because the fire obstructed vision.  I was concerned about that. But he went on out. I still got Weiner put together, ready to go, and and Galuszewski, and they were behind me, so I went on out. And they went out too, as the aircraft broke up. It broke up. They told me later. The three of us were the only ones who survived of the crew.

     I never knew what happened to Brent. During the reunion at Bad Hersfeld I heard what the Germans did and things like that, but the Brent story is another story which I’ll fill you in on down the line. Now, do you want the account of my fall, of my jump?

     Aaron Elson: Oh yes! I’m spellbound.

     Eugene George: I came out of the airplane. I used to swim a lot, and I came out, I was afraid I would hit some obstruction and my safest bet would be to get into a cannonball position. I didn’t know whether I had a parachute or not. And there were three things. One, I’d been off of oxygen for quite a while, and I was concerned about this. I wanted to get lower. Two, I knew there were a lot of German fighters in the area and chances are they wouldn’t shoot someone in a parachute, but I was afraid of even getting rammed, or run into, by a fighter. We had been briefed on the fact that the Polish fighters in the RAF would have no hesitation shooting a German in a parachute, and we knew that when this had happened the Germans would retaliate. That’s what we’d been told. The other thing was, in training films, we had a Navy character named Dilbert. Did you ever hear of Dilbert?

     Aaron Elson: Just the cartoon.

     Eugene George: He was a cartoon. He was a cadet, or a pilot, who goofed every possible way. One of these cartoons showed Dilbert in a parachute with a target painted on his chest and a duck sitting on his head and a Japanese aircraft lining up his sights, and I had that vision, of Dilbert. Those three things. And I was tumbling. I was in the cannonball position. I thought I’d better get out of that, and I didn’t know quite how to do that, and I stretched out into a swan dive. I reached for my ripcord to see if everything was still there, and I started spinning, so I got back in the swan dive.
Robert Osborn's Dilbert the Pilot

     There was a solid cloud cover underneath us. I thought when I get into those clouds, I will pull my ripcord.

     I went right through the clouds, and I could see the ground. But I was still in a freefall situation. And I was curious as to whether I had a parachute or not, but actually, the swan dive situation, it’s almost exhilarating. It was fun!

     So I fell most of the 23,000 feet, and I pulled my ripcord, and I was jerked up into the proper parachute position. My parachute worked. That was the great news. And I was coming down on some trees, which I later found were beech trees. My canopy covered the top of a tree, and I was swinging in the tree.

     I was kind of reconnoitering, I could hear an air raid siren, and I could hear impacts of aircraft crashing. And as part of this I could hear a lot of small explosions which I think were ammunition on the aircraft.

     I was able to swing over to the trunk of the tree and I discovered that my boots had snapped off when the parachute opened.

     I got over to the trunk of the tree and could climb up so I could reduce my parachute, which I left in the tree. While I was in the tree I looked down and there were two foxes, they were beautiful, red foxes with white tips on their tails. And they were obviously frightened by all of this activity. I thought, they would know where to hide, I mean they would go to a dense place. So I watched their direction. I never saw them again, but I got on the ground and headed in that direction, and I did get into a very dense undergrowth. I could see the sky but I was pretty well concealed, and sort of took stock of things.

I opened my escape kit, and it had been rifled. The stuff that mostly there was some hard candies, some halizone tablets for water purification, someone had been through it and turned it in, and the map was not there, which was really the one thing I wanted.

Waitress: Coffee?

Eugene George: Yes. I would like a cup of decaf, black.

Aaron Elson: Regular.

Eugene George: I had a little pocket Bible, and with it a New Testament with psalms, and I  opened it up, it was about ten o’clock in the morning, and it fell open to the 91st Psalm.

Aaron Elson: Is that “May ten thousand fall to your left...”?

Eugene George: Yes, that’s the one. So, that was very reassuring. That was a miracle. I mean, the foxes and the psalm. I waited for quite a while. I did see three, they could not see me, but ME-109s flying low over. They were in formation, probably returning to base. Also, there was a path not too far away and I heard some people talking. There were three men, all senior citizens, and they had a little fox terrier with them. I was really worried about that, but I was downwind from them. I was enough of a Boy Scout to know about this sort of thing, and the dog never caught me, but they were sort of talking to the dog, the dog was looking up at them, they went right on by.

My plan was to head for Switzerland, walk all night and sleep all day, and before the sun came up I would find a place to dig in.

I ran into Corman Bean, and we were together on that first night, or maybe the second night, I don’t remember. It was the 27th of September or the 28th. It was pretty chilly, and he slept all morning and he kept talking in his sleep about Millie, his wife. He would talk about her and it was quite a touching encounter. And then somehow, he decided to take off and we got separated. I don’t know how it happened.

I think we would have been together for a day or so. We didn’t have any food. We both had these little plastic water bottles that folded up and we purified our water, we had plenty of water. We tried eating raw potatoes. You’d go into a little farm, it was the fall and there was fruit on the trees, but the German dogs were really friendly, but they would start barking, and we didn’t want to risk that. So we didn’t eat.

Now, Corman’s stories may match up here some, but I think most of what I’m going to tell you was solo on my part. Somehow we got separated. We didn’t dare make a fire, or even if we had I don’t think we had any matches, but the raw potatoes were just not possible. At any rate, I found myself alone, still headed south. I was out about six days before I was picked up. I lost count. I knew it was into October some.

There were about three or four encounters that would be interesting. One is that, it’s amazing how your senses sharpen up under these circumstances, and I realized walking in the dark that I was not alone, and, you freeze. I had made shoes for myself out of part of my heated flying suit, I had a very sharp pocket knife and I used the wires in the heated suit to tie them, so I could move very quietly. So I just froze and there were two lovers, and I was very close to them. They never knew I was there, they were focused on each other.

The Brent crew
     Another time I found an autobahn, the main autobahn south, and headed toward Switzerland. Everything was blacked out but when you know a large, concentrated area, even though it’s blacked out, you get a feeling for the place. I could hear a railroad train. I was very concerned about bridges, because I didn’t want to get caught in the middle of a bridge. There was practically no traffic, and any traffic there was would have been military traffic, but I would often instead of walking on the bridge I’d go down and try to cross over the creek, not to get caught on the bridge. So I would walk all night and hide out all day. There was one time when I encountered a railroad going the same way as the autobahn, and the train was moving very slowly. I thought, if I can get onto this train I can hitch a ride for a while if it’s going in the right direction. It was going north. I was in timber, and I was on the edge of this forest by the railroad track, and I was secure behind a tree, it’s pretty dark, but I could make out, it was hauling something, and I could see cigarettes on these flat cars. It was an armored division, and it had tanks on this train and the crews were riding on the flatcars, now this was in the dark of night, so I thought, it was going in the wrong direction so I didn’t take that train. But those were two of the situations that I ran into.

One thing, the German forests were planted, and the trees were not at random. You could look down rows and rows of trees, and I think they could see you, so you really had to be cautious. But I was doing this at night.

About the sixth day, I ran out of cover. What happened was I was down in a valley, there were no trees, an agricultural area, and there was bridge. I thought if I could get under that bridge I could stay there all day. And so I did get under the bridge in some high stuff, but I didn’t reconnoiter at all. There was a path under the bridge also on the other side of the stream, and the Germans went to bed fairly early but they got up very early, and there were agricultural workers walking on this path. I knew they’d see me. I knew I was burned about the face and looked horrible, but I didn’t have a mirror, I didn’t know what I looked like, so I thought, well, my best plan is to just get up on the road, act boldly, and if I can find a bunch of bushes somewhere I’ll go in there, but surely they’ve seen me. I think they were so-called slave labor, I don’t know that they would have said anything, they were strange looking people. But I got up on the road and walked. A couple of military cars went by, didn’t stop. And I was getting into central Germany. I’d been walking like crazy. I put myself down as four miles per hour, because I’d conditioned myself to that pace. But I ran into an overseer of these laborers, and he saw me and he looked very stern and said “Englishman!”

I said, “Nein, nein, Amerikanische.” I was pretty hungry and tired by this time. My right eye was really hurting and I was afraid I might lose it from the burn. I could feel my face, and part of my oxygen mask had melted on my face. And he looked at me and looked horror stricken.

We had been told that the SS were dangerous, to never give up to them, that the Hitlerjugend were kids and they were dangerous, but to give up to the Wehrmacht. So I asked if he could take me to the Wehrmacht. He said yes, he would. He took me into this little town, I don’t know where it was, or what it was, I really would like to know the name of that town. He took me into what would be the equivalent of the administrative office. I had an o.d. uniform with insignia and stuff under my flying suit which had been burned in places. I took off my flying suit to show that I was in uniform. Finally they sent for someone who spoke English. So he came up and he said, “Are you from Chicago?”

And I said, “No, I’ve never been to Chicago.” And I told him I had walked for six days without food, did he have anything to eat?

He said, “Oh, you’ll get food.” They never did.

When he asked this question about Chicago I thought he was thinking about gangsters, American flyers were gangsters. So I told him name, rank and serial number, that I was a student, an architectural student, and they were amazed at how old I was. They thought I would have been much older. And I was from Texas. Now you’re just supposed to tell name, rank and serial number, but, he said, “Well, I lived in Chicago.”

And I said, “Well, you must not have liked it because you’re here in Germany.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I’m going to go back there as fast as I can when this war is over.”

So they put me in their hoosegow, which was the top of their church, a little room in the  belfry. And I was so exhausted. And they sent for a Wehrmacht guard and a truck to take me to the railroad station.

And that little room was so filthy, I slept on the floor. But I was dead to the world, I was so tired. So I got on the train in the baggage car headed for Frankfurt. I didn’t know where it was going. And they had a guard in the baggage compartment. It had bicycles and baggage and things, and he was a Wehrmacht guard. Do you remember the Milton Caniff cartoons? He was very accurate in his drawings, and he would show Germans with Mauser rifles and actually in training, his drawings of Japanese landing craft were so accurate that those were used as training aids. But one of the things he was very accurate with was his weapons, and the Mauser, the German Mauser, was one of them. And this guard was a young guy, I looked at him, he was very curious about me, and I think the word had gotten through to him that I was from Texas and that I had been without food for six days and had walked all this distance. I did ask him how far I was from Switzerland. He said about 50 kilometers. And I went back and checked that distance after from Bad Hersfeld to see if it was possible, and it was plausible at a four mile per hour pace. Now I don’t know whether I’m exaggerating, but at any rate, that’s what I believe I heard him say. Another two nights I could have done it. And Switzerland wasn’t blacked out, so you knew when you were over the border.

My plan had been to get a boat and go to Lake Constance and go across there, if I could get a sailboat. I used to sail sailboats and I was thinking to do that. I didn’t know what sort of patrols they would have but I didn’t think they would be very severe because that was not a war zone. But anyway, I saw his rifle and I said, “Mauser?” And I looked at it, not trying to get too close, and he handed it to me. And I looked out the window, and I lifted his rifle and very carefully handed it back to him, and he realized what he had done, and then he was a little uptight. I was whistling which I think just passed the time, and I was whistling the Marseillaise. He asked me not to do it. He didn’t speak English, and he asked me not to do that, so I tried Lili Marlene and asked him to sing Lili Marlene. So we got into Frankfurt eventually. I still hadn’t eaten.

Aaron Elson: You must have been starved.

Eugene George: Well, actually with water you can last a long time. But those peaches I had back several days before had to last a long time. At any rate, I was taken into a place where there were a lot of German enlisted men, and they all knew that I had walked this distance and had been without food, and that I was from Texas. And being from Texas, it really turned them on. And I said, “No, my great-grandfather did. Not my father.” And that I grew up on horseback, and with cows and oil wells. So we talked about things like that. The big question on their minds was, “When is the war going to be over?”

And I said, “We think it’ll be done by Christmas.” And they were overjoyed at that. Everyone was sick and tired of war.

I was taken into the hospital for my burns. I had very good medical care. I asked the doctor if he went to school in Heidelberg. He said he did, and he said, “When is the war going to be over?”

And I said, “That’s one of the best medical schools in the world. Some of our best physicians went there before the war.”

And always, I think, because I was in a hospital bed, and because I behaved like an officer, these orderlies would come in, I did get some potato soup finally, and they would salute before they would ask a question, and I think this really paid off.

We went to a place called Dulag Luft, which you’ve heard about. I was there a couple of weeks and put on a train with one other person, an Australian radio operator in a Lancaster, and we headed for Stetin.

Aaron Elson: At Dulag Luft, were you interrogated?

Eugene George: Not much. You see, I looked like Frankenstein. I was all bandaged up. I was not much interrogated. The Australian and I were locked up in a compartment of a passenger car. We went through Berlin on the way, and we were locked in the car and there was an air raid on Berlin. The German officer said that the Geneva Convention says I’m supposed to warn you that I will shoot you if you try to escape and I’m now warning you, and he went to the bomb shelter. We stayed locked up in the train, and the bombs didn’t fall near us. I looked the Australian up in Australia when I went there later on, his name is Johnny Murray and he went to the College of England after the war, he studied dentistry, and we had a little correspondence.

We would go through places and there would be P-51s in the area, they would stop the train, they’d leave, running, and all the passengers would go to the woods. We would stay locked up. And we eventually got to Barth. Stetin, then to Barth, and we did do some walking with a large group of prisoners. There were very vicious dogs and guards, and we got into Stalag Luft 1 near Barth.

Aaron Elson: How did you learn what happened to Brent?

Eugene George: I never knew really what happened to Brent. To me, he was MIA, and I thought probably he was killed in the jump or he got caught by civilians who shot him and killed him on the spot or something. I never knew. He was just straight MIA.

I had a telephone call one day, he said he was from Oregon and he asked if I was Walter E. George who had been a pilot in the Air Force. And I said yes. And he said, “Did you fly with Donald E. Brent?”

I said, “Yes, he was my pilot.”

And he said, “I’m his great-nephew.”

And I said, “If you want to know what happened to him I don’t know. I think I was the last one to see him alive, he went out of the airplane before I did, but I don’t know what happened to him after that.”

He said, “He was killed and he was buried in Germany and reburied in an American cemetery.” And he said, “I really would like to talk with you. My family would like to talk ... my grandmother would like to talk with you.”

And I said, “Well, I’d like to talk with you.”

I’d always wanted to see Oregon, so I said, “I’ll come to Oregon.” So my wife and I went. I was not sure where Brent was from, but I knew he was associated with Eugene, Oregon, and he had a wife in Bellevue, Washington. So we went to Eugene. I’d been in most of the states but never Washington or Oregon, and I wanted to see the trees and other things. So it was like going to a funeral. All the relatives, two of them military, high up, colonels, who came from the Washington, D.C., area. There was another retired Air Force person. There was the family. His former wife, of course, was remarried, his sister, the grandmother of this nephew, and her daughter, and these people really rolled out the carpet but I told them all I could.

Brent was a good pilot. He was well-coordinated. He thought ahead of the airplane, and he was interested in railroads. He wanted to be a railroad engineer and he’d worked on the railroads for a while, and he was mechanically inclined.

We were in harmony as a team, as pilots. I knew what he was thinking before he said it, and he knew what I was thinking, and the way we worked, reacting on the airplane. But he was a good pilot, and I’ve flown with pilots who are dangerous. In fact, I refused to fly with two pilots because they just weren’t with it. And they were trying to be macho.

So we had a good visit. I gave Brent’s sister’s daughter the Bible that I’d had in my pocket when I bailed out, and she broke into tears. I said, “This rode next to Brent on 17 missions.”

So that’s about it. I stayed in the Reserve. I never flew a B-24 again. When we were evacuated from prison, for a lot of prisoners, B-17s came in and picked us up, and I was up near the pilot and I said, “Can I fly your airplane?”

He said, “Sure.”

So I flew back to an airfield in France at very low altitude in Germany, the low altitude being, oh, 1,500 feet, just looking at the countryside.

Aaron Elson: What was it like in Stalag Luft 1?

Eugene George: We were very crowded. We had 16 to 20 men in a room. We were stacked up in berths that were too short or worked well for Italians. We had Italian blankets which were too short. And remember, this was wintertime in Germany. We had two or three briquets of coal and a little heater, but actually our best warmth was from the fact that we had 20 people and we had body heat. But we had Red Cross parcels. We didn’t have a lot to eat, we were on very small rations, but when we got off Red Cross parcels it was pretty rough. We lost a lot of weight. I really got angry with these television programs about Air Force prisoners, all of these healthy guys who obviously ...

Aaron Elson: Hogan’s Heroes?

Eugene George: Hogan’s Heroes. To me this is the biggest farce I ever saw. It’s ridiculing the situation. I mean, these people, for what they did they would have been shot. And we had a fellow shot for chasing a baseball under the warning wire, and another fellow shot when he opened a window during an air raid. The German guards varied greatly. We had cigarettes in the Red Cross parcels and these were trade goods.

One thing that had happened, we were so out of shape if you got a scratch, it took so long healing. And then we walked around kind of bent over. In Hogan’s Heroes, these people are straight and doing things, it wasn’t like that. The Germans kept their civilian group late in the war pretty well informed about where the Russians were. We knew the Russians were coming, but we didn’t know what form this would take. And we didn’t know what the Germans would do. We would hear explosions and the Germans were blowing up motorcycles and things like this they didn’t want to fall into Russian hands. And we knew there was an airport nearby, there was an airport very close to us, and I think our prison was put close to that airport to protect the airport. And we, as pilots, were watching these Germans fly. They were flying JU-88s mostly, and they were so uncoordinated. And we thought they were throwing inexperienced pilots with very low flying time into hot airplanes, and they’ll kill themselves in these planes let alone do anything to the Russians.

But the Germans grabbed a lot of Red Cross parcels and pulled out. We heard they were headed for the English lines, and the German civilian population was very agitated. The first Russians I believe we had was a boy and a girl on horseback just sort of scouting out the territory, and they came into the area and left. And we knew the Russians were coming. And the Russians came in the form of a lot of drunk Mongolians and Orientals. I don’t know where they were from but some of them were driving very skinny horses and pulling a cart full of loot. They were dressed in parts of German uniforms and they all had German machine pistols, and they were drunk. And mostly they came in wearing black armbands and we said, “Why are you wearing black armbands?”

And they said, “Why aren’t you wearing black armbands? Roosevelt is dead.” The Russian army was wearing black armbands to honor Roosevelt. And so they got us some black cloth and that was our identification.

Aaron Elson: Had you not heard about Roosevelt?

Eugene George: We had not heard about Roosevelt being dead. But at any rate, we had numerous incidents in the camp. One of them was there were prisoners, I suppose they were officers but they were painting a stripe down the street, have you heard this story?

Aaron Elson: No.

Eugene George: And they painted right on up to the guard opening, they painted their own way out. They painted as long as their paint would last, and they were out of prison. But the Orientals just had a reign of terror. And they were very fond of German children. You’d see one with a little blond kid on his lap and just as happy as could be, they treasured these children. And you’d see children holding onto the harness of a trained German shepherd. Then there were civilian suicides in places, and the Russians didn’t bury anything. This was a problem. But finally, more regular, disciplined troops came in behind them.

Aaron Elson: Did they do anything to the children?

Eugene George: Oh no, they didn’t harm the children at all. The parents I’m sure were terrified. I don’t know that they would have harmed the parents if they were the parents of the children. The German children were extremely well fed, they were healthy. The Russians drove in, and we told them we hadn’t had beef for quite a while. And their ration was alcohol and they had little tins of sardines. They lived off the land. We told them we hadn’t had beef, and they drove in a very fine herd of Holstein cattle, and you know, to get a cow from a cow to a steak takes some in-between work, and that was attempted but it didn’t work, and we were trying to get the cows back to the owners. But their troops came in and they were a crack outfit. We had seen their reconnaissance planes, which were like 1930s biplanes coming over. Their vehicles were all worn out, their land vehicles, on the units we saw. They encountered SS and the SS had a unit somewhere around there, they went down to a little town called Zingst and made a last stand and I think the Russians killed them all. The Russians were fishing with hand grenades and things like that, they were kind of dangerous to be around. When the first ones came in they were line troops and they wanted us to tear down our barbed wire enclosures. We didn’t have any techniques to do this, and we didn’t have any tools to do it with. They sent a lot of them over with, I don’t know how, maybe a hundred vehicles, and they wanted us to demonstrate things. And they sat in squads or patrols and a lot of individual cars. I was worried about their fires because I was thinking any German reconnaissance would pick them up, but they were doing their dances and they had their little squeeze box, they were very musical, and they wanted us to join in, and they wanted us to join with them and go on and keep chasing the Germans.

They also brought in a USO, the equivalent of a USO show, and they brought in a lot of banners commemorating dead soldiers, large photographic banners. We heard they said “We’ll take you out to the Ukraine” or Georgia, and we said, “We’ll stay right here, our people will come and get us.” They couldn’t believe that.

We waited there on the ground for I don’t know, two or three weeks, and things got settled down and B-17s came into this little airport. It had been mined. We had gone over there, I was curious about the time I got shot at. I learned that you hear the whine of the bullet before you hear the report. So I went back in and stayed pretty much put. There were corpses, which was very unpleasant.

Aaron Elson: Were you married at the time?

Eugene George: Yes. I was married for about two years. I was married just before I went in. When I got my wings I got married. She was about the equivalent of Hedy Lamar in appearance, she was a beautiful young woman. She was a graduate student in nutrition. To be an architect with a lot of time in front of me, our marriage just wasn’t in place. I finished up at Texas and then later got my graduate degree. I got divorced early on, while I was a student at Texas. And I didn’t get married again for quite a while. My current wife is my third wife, and we’ve been married for 21 years.

The question of flying in the military and all of that never goes away. When we met these Germans (in 1991), we were right at home. I mean, there’s a lot of camaraderie and a fraternity, nationality is of no consequence.

Aaron Elson: Even though the two sides, you were trying to kill each other?

Eugene George: And I’ve read, of course I’ve read a lot about aviation and aviation history, I’ve read that during World War I the French pilots and the German pilots used to be at air shows together before they were enemies, and developed great friendship during this time.
- - -
The Kassel Mission Memorial in Friedlos, Germany

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."

- - -

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Two Guys Talking B-24s

Part 2 of my conversation with Gene Crandall and Floyd Ogilvy
(Crandall was a propeller specialist and mechanical troubleshooter, and Ogilvy was a gunner in the 445th Bomb Group)

Gene Crandall: Did you ever see an airplane that was captured by the Germans and rebuilt?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yes, a B-24? I never had seen one but I heard they had them.

Gene Crandall: They used to, when they had crashes, they fixed them up and they’d get right up there in the same formation with our guys and radio down the altitude and the speed and all that, and then dive out of the formation and then you’d get the flak. Right?

Floyd Ogilvy: Well, yeah, I never saw one of those, but I knew ... What is your interest in this?

Aaron Elson: I’ve written a couple of books about my father’s tank battalion, and I was over in Europe, in Germany, doing some research, and I met Walter Hassenpflug.

Floyd Ogilvy: He was one of the people that got shot down?

Aaron Elson: No, he was a 12-year-old kid, German, and he captured Frank Bertram.
 He told me the story, showed me the monument, and I was hooked. I went to a reunion of my father’s tank battalion after he passed away, and I’d hear these veterans telling stories, and I was just riveted. So I went back the next year with a tape recorder. Historically it’s good that I’m doing this, but to me, these are just great  stories.

Gene Crandall: There’s a lot more interest now in the Second World War, 50 years later.

Floyd Ogilvy: I just came back from Pennsylvania, Penn State University, they had the National Collegiate Wrestling Tournament there, and I’m an ex-college wrestler so my wife and I go every year.

Aaron Elson: Reg Miner was a wrestler in high school.

Floyd Ogilvy: I don’t know that name. Is he 445th?

Aaron Elson: He was the pilot of Frank Bertram’s plane. I think Kassel was his 19th mission. When did you finish your missions?

Floyd Ogilvy: August 11 and that was September 27 as I recall.

Aaron Elson: So he would have come in shortly before you finished up. What missions did you go on besides Berlin?

Floyd Ogilvy: Munich. Strasbourg. Saarbrucken.

Aaron Elson: Oh, Saarbrucken. I don’t know if it was the same one, but his plane was badly damaged on a Saarbrucken raid and he landed in a field.

Floyd Ogilvy: In England?

Aaron Elson: Yes. But he didn’t make it back to Tibenham. He came in over a clump of trees and they were scraping the bottom of the plane. It was just a miracle, but that was a Saarbrucken raid.

Floyd Ogilvy: There was more than one Saarbrucken mission. But I did go there once.

Aaron Elson: You were not on the Gotha raid?

Floyd Ogilvy: No, that was before I got over there.

Aaron Elson: But you had heard about that?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yep, I sure did. I was scared to pieces. That was a tough one.

Aaron Elson: Did you ever go to Gotha?

Floyd Ogilvy: No. It happened before I got there, where they lost several planes from the 445th.

Aaron Elson: Do you recall the plane that, when they sent four planes up to Ireland and they brought one back and the plane blew up in midair with the four crews on it?

Floyd Ogilvy: My navigator got killed in that. John Hennessy.

Gene Crandall: What were they going to Ireland for, to pick up another airplane?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yes. They had 24 guys on it, and the plane blew up. And my navigator, after I finished my tour, my navigator stayed in.

Gene Crandall: You know, after this raid that you were talking about, the Kassel mission, the next day we had 31 brand new airplanes. Because they had them in a staging area. And I thought to myself, thank God for the civilians that are building this stuff. And I guess Ford built them so fast that they had to slow him down because he was making one an hour. After I got through college I went to law school and so forth, I went broke, so I went over to Kaiser, they had Willow Run then, and I was a division superintendent building C-119 cargo airplanes in the same place that all those B-24s were built. And as far as I know about B-24s, any airplane built by Ford we could take the tail section off of any Ford plane and put it right on there and they built them all with pictures and everything so that they always were a perfect fit. But the Consolidated airplanes are lousy, you know, they were almost hand made in a different way.

Aaron Elson: So both Ford and Consolidated made B-24?

Gene Crandall: Oh, a lot more than that made them. I don’t know how many plants made them. I think they made them, didn’t they make B-24s in Texas?

Floyd Ogilvy: In Oklahoma.

Gene Crandall: In Oklahoma? Consolidated, I don’t know if they built them in Wichita or not. They had an awful lot of components being built and shipping to the assembly place. But I know they slowed Ford down because he was making one an hour, and boy, I think the civilians did as much to win the war as we did. Because one time we had a bunch of construction guys screwing around with our runway and they spilled crushed rock all over the ground, were you there then?

Floyd Ogilvy: uh-huh.

Gene Crandall: We had to ground all our airplanes because they were running over these damn crushed rocks. And within 36 hours, airplanes were arriving with loads of tires. And the people in the United States were really getting it together. I guess we could thank Marshall for that. Marshall was the brain behind the whole damn war.

Aaron Elson: Did you encounter any signs of sabotage on any of the planes?

Gene Crandall: No, I never saw any signs of sabotage. I know that one day a little black car pulled up and snapped up about three Englishmen that were working on the runway. I don’t know what exactly they were, but it was the CID, and they had spies there, I know that. Because they knew when we were taking off and every other damn thing. But this little black car came up there and plainclothes guys got out and snapped a couple of these Limeys off of the runway and took them away. But I told you, two days after we got there Lord Haw Haw said "Welcome the 445th." They had spies, but I never saw any sabotage. We had enough wrecks due to our own stupidity. I was much more frightened by our own people than I was the Germans, because we had some gunnery officer that was trying to sight in the rear turret and he didn’t have the interruptor on, the fire interruptor, and he was spraying bullets all over the base. In fact, I went over to my washerwoman one day and asked her, she used to wash my clothes, and I went over there and she says, "Come along in here now," and I went in there, and she had holes in her parlor. And I said, "My god, where’s that from?"
   She said it was from those machine guns.
   The worst problem we had, because I used to go down there in the dark, in the morning, and the armament guys would be fiddling around with the turret, and every once in a while a blast with those incendiary bullets would go right out over the base, because the guys hit that foot pedal you guys had in there.

Floyd Ogilvy: They had them in the tail turret, a manual thing to fire the guns in case the hydraulic system or something was out. I can remember, in one of the bases where I was located, I’m not really sure where it was, but a guy got in the back in the turret while he was on the ground and stepped in the turret and hit that, and it sprayed bullets all over the place.

Gene Crandall: Yeah, and I was riding down the perimeter, dragging a propeller, or an engine, I forget which one I was dragging in a jeep, and that guy was still practicing over there and the damn bullets hit the trailer, or the dolly that was hauling the engine.  I was with the guy, and we heard that pinging going on, I said, "For Christ sakes, stop!" And we jumped out of there, we looked, and there was a hole in that damn, well, those were armor piercing bullets. I walked by a turret one time, a tail turret, and I told the armament guy, the guy who took care of the machine guns, I said, "There’s a jammed cartridge in that gun. Now be careful." I walk by the gun, and this guy got in there, and it went off. And it just missed the back of my head. It hit the ground, ricocheted right through an engine, and out through the wing. And I couldn’t hear for a week. So my assistant, I said to him, and this guy had his fingers, you know, where the air cool slots are, in a .50-caliber, he had his fingers in there, and they nipped off the end of his fingers, and he came out of there screaming and we grabbed him and put him in a jeep and took him over to the hospital. But it was very, very dangerous. Those old bombers were very, very dangerous. I don’t know how many of them had gas leaks, and if a B-24 ever cracked up it rolled up. Very few of them stayed whole when they came to rest, did they? The 17 was a good, tough airplane to crack up in.

Floyd Ogilvy: We don’t talk about 17s. We’re 24 people.

Gene Crandall: Some 17 pilots used to come over to our base and they’d look at our engines, and our engines were real clean ...

Floyd Ogilvy: Because the 17s were Wright engines and ours were Pratt-Whitney and they ...

Gene Crandall: The Wright engine had a lousy seal where the front bearing is, you know, where the propeller shaft is. And they were always dirty, and the pilots would come over there and they’d say, "How do you keep that propeller clean?"

Floyd Ogilvy: You didn’t have to. Did you ever hear of a guy by the name of Tony Marks?

Aaron Elson: No.

Floyd Ogilvy: Well, he’s a guy that I have been in touch with, and the plane that we flew most of our missions on was called the Silver Streak, and I didn’t realize that it had been shot down before we left, and we flew our last four missions on a plane called Thumper. So I got hold of him and I told him, no, I said my plane was, I thought it got shot down on the Kassel raid. He wrote me back this letter and he said ...

Aaron Elson: (reading) "Dear Floyd, Nice to hear from you. Again I thank you for the confirmation of my info re the Silver Streak. Memory is a funny thing and you’re not the first vet by any means to tell me something which conflicted with the facts that I had. When you do this type of research, you just have to have open mind about things and not be too dogmatic. It’s odd, though, that Brsic’s book records no losses on July 25 whereas Freeman’s Mighty Eighth War Diary does, just one 445th. I’m familiar with the other plane you mention, Thumper ..."

Floyd Ogilvy: My plane got shot down on July 25, and then we flew on the Thumper and he talks about that there too.

Aaron Elson: (reading) "...In fact, I have a couple of photos of it, one with the nose turret knocked off after a midair collision during a mission to Mainz on 9 September '44. After you finished your tour, I should think. Thumper was finally lost on a mission to Hanau on 11 December '44." Oh, he’s in England, this ...

Floyd Ogilvy: Yeah, he’s an English person, and he was just really very interested in ...

Gene Crandall: You were in the Normandy invasion?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yes. I flew two missions on D-Day.

Aaron Elson: Did you?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yeah.

Gene Crandall: I think the group flew three missions that day. Because I know we put up everything we had, even War Weary airplanes, with a big WW on the tail. War Weary, you ever see them?

Floyd Ogilvy: No.

Gene Crandall: Well, when they get all worn out they put WW on the tail, they call it War Weary. And they sent everything they could get up. And one of these planes came back with the propeller not feathering, just turning, and I went over and grabbed hold of the blade, twisted it like that, and the damn thing went back and forth six inches. And somehow the hydraulic reservoir got shot out of there, and that airplane was in such bad shape that if anybody flew in that plane they were taking their life in their own hands. Well hell, they just junked them all, didn’t they? Like, when I was down to Ipswich where this one airplane came in that we picked up, I was telling him there was a runway five miles long, and one mile was blacktop and the rest of it was gravel, and they had pipes this big around all the way down each side of that runway when they dumped gasoline. And then start it on fire, and then that would dissipate the fog. There was a lot of night work going on, you know, from the RAF and all that. And the reason they did that was to dissipate the fog and then them guys knew where the runway was, see. And they had, it seemed to me hundreds of airplanes there, night fighters, all black, painted jet black. And they had all kinds of British airplanes there, and they were all piled up. It must have been billions of dollars worth of airplanes. Ipswich is right on the coast, so they’d come out of Germany and that’s what they hit. But they had an interesting system. When these guys would come back at night, they’d have one searchlight, did you ever do that? Okay, when they got to the coast, you see the RAF, or the British had this searchlight system, and they’d have one searchlight right up and you could see that thing from 10,000 feet. And then the guy would fly to that searchlight, and they’d turn it off, and they’d light another one down there about ten miles, and he’d fly to that one. And then when they were through, they could tell by the sound of the engine where it was, when he got down there far enough, why they’d let him land. Well, one morning I went down to the line and there were about twenty of those great big Halifax bombers sitting there that had gotten weathered in at their own base and they landed at our base, because they flew at night. And we used to listen to them at night going over, you could hear them at night, one right after the other.

Floyd Ogilvy: No formation, they just ...

Gene Crandall: These guys flew every day, all day long, in formation. At the end of the war there were thousand plane formations, and when they’re flying up there you could see, you remember when they were all aluminum, they stopped camouflaging them, because they’d go seven miles an hour faster if they were aluminum. So these parts would come tricking down like chaff, like you were talking about like Christmas tree chaff, and you could see it come down from 15, 20,000 feet. Very interesting time.

Aaron Elson: What was the mood on the base on Sept. 27, after the Kassel raid?

Gene Crandall: We took it as a terrible, terrible loss. I mean, when you lose 31 airplanes, you know, everybody said "Oh my God." Well, there was a time, you know, when they almost stopped the daytime bombings, the losses were so terrible. But in that raid you’re talking about, we heard that the German Goering’s Yellow Nose Squadron jumped the whole formation, and to get into Hermann Goering’s Yellow Nose Squadron, you had to have a hundred kills or something, although a kill for them was an engine, in other words if you shot down one bomber, that was four kills. But that’s what we heard. That was an awful sad day, Jesus, you lose 310 men, we thought we lost that many all in one crack. That’s why we didn’t get to be too friendly with guys like this [Ogilvy]. And at the end of the war, as we grew older and the crews grew younger, they were like little kids. It was a lot of, like, almost like cannon fodder.

Aaron Elson: You must have had buddies who were crew chiefs of planes, how did they take it when their plane ...

Gene Crandall: Oh, they’d get sick when they’d lose their plane, because it’s like part of them, a lot of crew chiefs went on missions with them.

Aaron Elson: Really?

Gene Crandall: Yeah, they did. I know half a dozen guys went on missions. I’ve been on missions. But they were milk runs. Never go along to Berlin. But hell, the crew chief got to be very close to the people, his crew. One crew bought a silver B-24 carved by a jeweler and gave it to the crew chief. And they always went to London and always brought him back a bottle of booze. The pilots were very nice to the ground crew, because their life was hanging on every thing.

Aaron Elson: I can’t get over, you know, reading the amount of damage to some of those planes...

Gene Crandall: Oh, gosh, you don’t know. They’d come back with a half a tail gone, and wings all shot to hell. In fact, one time one came back and he had a .20-millimeter right through the propeller blades, and we learned in engineering school if that ever happened it would really throw it off balance. I said to the pilot, "Did you know you had a bullet through the propeller?" He said, "Hell, no." He said, "I was so interested in getting back it didn’t bother me."
   Well hell, I don’t know how many times they’d get shot on the deck, you know, down low, and the Germans would be after them and they’d call for 60 inches of manifold pressure on there and come back out of there and burn up their engines almost, and we’d have to change the engines. Hell, I’ve seen them come back and they actually sucked the duct business out of the intake manifold, and I’d say to them, "Jesus, you know you burned the engines out?" And they’d say, "We don’t give a damn ..."
   Well, they were sitting ducks, that’s why they got down on the lower level, just to get back across that damn Channel. That Zuider Zee has still got thousands of airplanes, and they still dig ’em out of there once in a while, and that water’s so cold that they find the guys’ dog tags and all that. Which is right where the windmills and all that is.

Floyd Ogilvy: Was Dewey a POW?

Aaron Elson: No, Dewey made it back. And, let’s see, I think that was only his eighth mission, so he continued to fly. What led Hennessy to stay in?

Floyd Ogilvy: I don’t know, if it was promotion or what. Anyway, he stayed over there and I came back home, and I didn’t know until way after the war that he was killed. A handsome young guy. Nice kid.

Gene Crandall: He got killed?

Floyd Ogilvy: Yeah, he got killed in that thing that he was talking about, those 24 people, they were going to Ireland.

Aaron Elson: They were delivering three old B-24s ...

Gene Crandall: Then they picked up new airplanes, didn’t they?

Aaron Elson: No, the fourth plane went with them and brought the crews back, I guess there were six man crews on each. And over Liverpool it just exploded in midair. This fellow George Noorigian, he was a bombardier, but he believes, he said it was his theory, but nobody ever knew exactly what happened, but with 24 people on a plane he thought a lot of them would be smoking, crammed in like that, and he thought that there must have been a leak in the gas ...

Gene Crandall: Well, the way the wind blew through there I don’t know if that would have made any difference or not. Boy, if that wind blew through there it was cold. I’ve seen, the B-24 was notorious for leaking, and the wing was built like this, right in the bomb bay, and the leak would run right down to that V and drip down into the bomb bay. I’ve seen guys when the plane would spring a leak, they’d get so damn mad they’d get out there and kick the airplane. We had some crazy fellows. One guy used to come back from a mission, and he’d have the co-pilot fly, and he’d get down there about ten feet off of the English Channel and take his .45 and shoot it down into the water. Well, that pilot, you know, wartime pilots are a little crazy. Especially fighter pilots. One guy was from Clear Point, North Carolina, and he owned a tavern or what they call a roadhouse, and he knew this guy that was either the first or second ace in the British Isles. So the guy came over there and he said, and he’s flying a jug, you know, a Thunderbolt, a P-37, and he said, "Show us a little performance, will you?" And this young kid, he was nuts, he was maybe 25, he looked like he was 30. And he took that damn jug aloft and he made a pass at that field upside down, and you’d swear that that canopy was gonna drag the ground.

Aaron Elson: You had mentioned earlier governors. Did the engines have governors?

Gene Crandall: Sure as hell did. Hydraulic governors.

Aaron Elson: Was that to control the speed or to limit it?

Gene Crandall: To control the blade angle of the propeller. When you got up to 2,850 RPM if it ever got that high, the blade angle would take a bigger bite of the air so that the engine wouldn’t run right, and if it got up to 3,500 it would burn the engine up.

Aaron Elson: Let me ask you, one of the pilots on the Kassel Mission who made it to the emergency field at Manston said that he had an almost a panoramic view because he was in the lower left element, I think, but he could look out and see all that was going on, and he said one memory that would always stay with him, one of the weirdest things he’d ever seen, two B-24s, he said their propellers, all four propellers corkscrewed away from the plane and flew in formation until they tilted downward.

Gene Crandall: I’ve never heard of anything like that. I used to put propellers and engines on there, and it was my job to run em up to full 60 inches of manifold pressure, and the damn propellers were turning right by my head, and it was my job to run em up and check em out, and I never saw a propeller leave an airplane. But, if he said he saw it he saw it. But it must have been some kind of engineering fluke.

Floyd Ogilvy: That was on the Kassel raid?

Aaron Elson: On the Kassel raid. He felt that it was an inexperienced pilot in both planes that had given it full throttle, now I don’t quite understand ...

Gene Crandall: That wouldn’t make sense.

Floyd Ogilvy: It would if they feathered something and shouldn’t have.

Gene Crandall: If they feathered it, that still wouldn’t make them break loose.

Aaron Elson: Is it possible that it was at the same time as they were being hit by shells.

Gene Crandall: Well to do that, you’d probably have to take the whole nose section off the airplane, and that nose section is made out of magnesium so it’s lighter. But I never saw that happen. I saw one airplane once that had a rebuilt engine on it so that a nose section came off it, but I never saw ... We had the best airplanes they could build, the best they could give us. I never saw anything like that.

Floyd Ogilvy: Well, anything is possible.

Gene Crandall: Well, in wartime, you know, they, like Ford built one an hour. If there was a defect it’s possible. But I never saw anything like that. ... Where are you from?

Aaron Elson: New Jersey

Gene Crandall: What part of New Jersey?

Aaron Elson: Hackensack, northern New Jersey.

Gene Crandall: I was in Trenton for a while. Fort Dix there. Till we got redeployed. I liked Trenton. George Washington slept there.

Aaron Elson: Now you became a lawyer after the war?

Gene Crandall: No, I went to law school. Oh, hell, I can’t stand lawyers. I went broke in law school.

Aaron Elson: How did you do that?

Gene Crandall: Oh, I had a bunch of kids. Then I decided I didn’t like lawyers anyhow. So I went to work at Kaiser. And 18 months later they were in a big aircraft program and I went over there and ended up a division superintendent building airplanes.

Floyd Ogilvy: Guys, I’ve got to get home, it’s 9:30. It was nice talking with you.

Aaron Elson: Let me just get the name of this, "Fields of Little America, Martin W. Bowman."

Gene Crandall: Where did you get that?

Floyd Ogilvy: I bought it in England when I went over, after I retired. Saw it on the shelf and said, ooh, that looks interesting.

Gene Crandall: He’s the mayor of Battle Creek.

Floyd Ogilvy: Not anymore.

Aaron Elson: How long were you the mayor?

Floyd Ogilvy: Three years.