Mission In The Morning (1944)
Joseph M. Collector Ball Turret Gunner, 570th Bomb Squadron, Skippy
Three stories from Norfolk, VA, Joseph Collector a Ball Turret Gunner. The first story tells of preparing for a morning mission while listening to the short wave radio, adding pictures to the pin up girl board and telling joke’s in WW II England. The second one is during a mission to fly to occupied France a fire breaks out on the plane. The third one is a visit to the Turkish baths and how a good night’s sleep saved his life.
As I write this article, I meditate over the fact that all or at least many of you have already read or seen a story of this sort in the movies. Since our nation has entered the war, this drama has been played in magazines and newspapers countless times. However, though it is a routine task, I am still fascinated that I cannot subdue my desire to write about “The Mission in the Morning.”
As I begin these observations, it is evening in Barracks T-37, the home of thirty aerial gunners. T-37 is a barracks consisting of a wooden frame covered with sheet metal on a concrete foundation. It’s interior has two stoves for warmth, blue blackout curtains and the multiple possessions of the men living here. Perhaps I should say boys, for their average age is approximately twenty-two. We have all come back from supper with the exception of a few fellows at the American Red Cross Club or the movies. The stoves are glowing and there are groups sitting around them just as they would in a country store.
Several of the boys are working on bicycles, for here in England the bike constitutes the main form of transportation on all bases. Indeed it is routine to see even captains or majors regardless of age, pedaling around the field on them. The disbursement of the planes over a wide area of the base makes their use a necessity rather than a luxury. We see old American ingenuity as two of the fellows construct a bike from old discarded parts.
Al, the radioman and the Casanova of our crew, is hanging up a pin-up picture of Olivia De Havilland on the wall of our barracks which is already a harem of Varga girls, movie queens, wives and sweethearts. There is a heated discussion as a tail gunner is trying to convince a ball turret gunner of the merits of the tail versus the ball turret. In the midst of this humdrum, one of the boys is trying to get Harry James via short wave. The air is suddenly filled with a conglomeration of Portuguese news reports, Spanish tangos and the futile attempt of a screaming German propagandist to convince anyone of the “certain Axis victory.”
Upon the arrival of Ernie, a waist gunner, we learn that there is a blue flag alert which means that there is a mission scheduled for the morning. At once the barracks is in an uproar. Everyone voices their opinion as to whether or not we will go. One engineer claims that he is certain the show will be called off for it will rain within the next two hours. He swears that his corns never lie, but the reply to this is the old standby, “Remember that you are in England.” This is very true for the weather here is more changeable in a short period of time than anyplace I’ve ever seen.
Contrary to popular opinion touted by scenario writers, the knowledge of a raid does not bring an abrupt end to whatever gaiety is going on or the grim silence of men checking their last will and testament. Although flying over Germany offers much danger, it is not necessarily suicidal. I can explain our beliefs more clearly by quoting our own Commanding General Henry Arnold: “Let us not gloss over the fact that combat flying is a grim and dangerous business. The Air Force has taught the men at home the maneuvers they should execute in combat abroad. In these maneuvers a few are bound to be injured or killed, but the overwhelming proportions are better prepared to defeat the enemy.”
With the realization that sleep is needed we soon extinguish the lights. Our barracks has quite a few Northerners and I am the only Virginian. Before turning in, I decide that once again I shall give my rather worn-out speech. In the voice and manner of our Honorable Carter Glass addressing the Senate I begin, “Men, once again I remind you that there are three Virginians running this field, our Commanding Officer Col. Edgar M. Wittan of Newport News, our Air Executive Lt. Col. Thomas S. Jeffrey of Arlington and a ball turret gunner from Norfolk, whose name from sheer modesty I will not mention.” Warding off the flying shoes and ignoring the raspberries and Bronx cheers, I climb into bed with a chuckle.
Soon the barracks is dark and silent except for the occasional squeak of bed springs and the ever present snoring from a large group of soldiers. After what seems only half-an-hour, it is 0330 hours and the Charge-of-Quarters arouses us with the usual, “Breakfast at 4, briefing at 5”. It is a cold and clammy British morning, but we force ourselves out of our warm beds, into our clothes and trudge thru the dark to the awaiting trucks which carry us to the mess hail. Breakfast consists of fruit juice, fresh eggs, bacon, oatmeal and coffee. The talk centers on the target for today, how cold it will be at 29,000 feet and the number of missions it will make for each man. All too soon we scramble out to the waiting trucks and go to the briefing hall. Upon arrival we go to our lockers and put on our flying gear which consists of long woolen underwear, heavy socks and our Easter Bunny suits, the nickname for the electrically heated suits and shoes, plus a final covering of flying coveralls. By this time it is 0500 hours and we go into the large briefing hall.
Here, all foolishness and horseplay stops, for the briefing of the day’s operations which are vitally important if we are to be successful. Except for a few jokes made by the Operations Officer, there is no laughing for we are all deeply concentrating on the briefing. When this is over, we go out to the hardstands where our planes are parked, clean our guns and check the million details while getting into each other’s way. As always, we finish in time and sit around smoking before take-off. Slim, one of the ground mechanics owns an accordion and we call for a song. Following a bit of persuasion, he consents and we listen in pretended rapture of true music lovers, as he plays “East Side, West Side”. I can’t help but notice that we all become a little quiet, each thinking of home. It is almost time for take-off and after a final selection of “Pistol Packin Mama” to give us that old fighting spirit, we climb into the plane. Tom, Paul and Tex, Pilot, Co-Pilot and Engineer, go up into the cockpit; Walt and Lee, Bombardier and Navigator, go into the nose; Al, the Radio Operator goes into the radio room; Red, Pete and myself go into the waist and Buster into the tail.
The engines roar and we are soon airborne. The trip officially begins when Tex salutes Al as he comes through the radio room to check the rising of the tail wheel. This is an old tradition our crew began when we started flying together back in the states.
Soon the sky around us is thick with hundreds of other bombers, each with ten fellows like myself. Regardless whether the target is Brunswick, Schweinfurt or Berlin, in the back of our minds we are thinking of that little spot called home, which for some may be a farm in Iowa, a ranch in Texas, or in my case, the corner of Colley and Shirley Avenue watching the girls — oops, the Fords go by!
On my 19th birthday in November 1942, I enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After attending various technical schools I volunteered for the Aerial Gunnery School in Laredo, TX. Upon completion of that course, I became a crewmember on the B-17 bomber and wound up at the 390 Bomb Squadron at the Paraham Air Base in Framlington, England. The year was 1943.
The ship I flew on was named “Skippy”; we flew in the Block J Squadron. During my year overseas, our crew lost three aircraft. In the first incident, we were forced to crash land a plane due to mechanical failure. We were unable to lower the wheels, whether this was due to enemy fire or malfunction I cannot recall. The landing was successful and no one was injured. I have enclosed photos of the plane both before and after the landing.
Not many weeks later, we were flying to bomb some area of occupied France. We had a fire in the bomb bay area of the plane; luckily the bombs had not been activated. Because of the fire, we were forced to abort the mission and return to home base. Since we knew the plane would ultimately explode, the pilot alerted us that we had to jump. He put the plane on automatic pilot headed out to the English Channel to spare any villages under us from being destroyed. Then, the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, and flight engineer, who were all in the forward section of the plane, bailed out of the front hatch. The radio operator, two waist gunners, including myself, ball turret operator and tail gunner always used the rear door for entry and exit. Unfortunately, the exit door malfunctioned because the emergency handle used to pull the cotter pins from the hinges allowing the door to blow off would not open against combined forces of the two motors on the right side of the plane and the slipstream. Seemingly, we were unable to exit the plane. Pandemonium broke out. It was terrible.
In desperation, I came up with a plan to “stack” four of my crewmates on top of each other and use their combined strength to push the door open enough to get someone through. I immediately began pushing the first one, then another of my crewmates out the crack. This worked fine until I was the only one left on the plane. By some miracle, I was able to force part of my body through the door unaided and I found myself hanging from the plane by one leg trapped in the door. I was sure this was the end of me, as everybody was gone and the plane was headed out to the Channel with me hanging from the door. Remarkably, I fell out of the heavy flying boot I was wearing. Apparently the force of the slipstream pulled me free of the boot and after counting to ten to be sure I didn’t prematurely open my parachute into the plane, I was able to pull the ripcord and land safely from 8000 feet in the air.
It seemed forever before I reached the ground. I landed on the edge of the English Channel in the muck and submerged in the mud. When I was able to wipe my face I found four British Soldiers with rifles trained on me. They assumed I was a German pilot and called in their Commanding Officer, who had me dispatched to a hospital at their gunnery station along with the coast. I was unable to stand due to heavy bruising on my leg and stayed there for three days.
I was released from the British hospital and driven back to my squadron approximately 40 miles away. Then, my own people debriefed me, typically when returning from a mission. Our entire crew would be debriefed together as a team, however, our crew had been disbursed over a 55 mile area, three members had been injured, and we could not be collectively interviewed. When the interrogation officer heard my whole story, he claimed that he was going to nominate me for a Silver Star. I did not see the rest of my crew for at least a week and the three injured crewmembers never returned to our base. Consequently, my story could not be validated by any of the people in the rear of the ship at that time. This situation was so disturbing, that thoughts of medals were not upper-most in anyone’s mind. We were glad to be alive. Colonel Witten, our Command Officer, found medals to be frivolous since the German Air Force was superior to us at that time and we had a war to win.
My Commanding General at the time was Brigadier General Curtis LeMay. He implemented a brilliant strategy to significantly reduce the German’s fighter planes by attacking the capital, Berlin. This attack was no surprise to the Germans. Indeed we let them know we were coming-unescorted by our fighter pilots. Of course we, the fliers, believed this was a suicide mission. Personally, I flew the first four bombing mission in the strategy. General LeMay was confident the German fighter planes would be forced to defend Berlin and that we had the best-trained gunners capable of eliminating the threat posed to our ground forces on beaches at Normandy. In so doing, our gunners in the B-17s and B24s practically decimated the entire German fighter threat.
I consider the loss of our third plane to be the most tragic. My pilot, and a man I respected beyond measure, LT Thomas Sutters, was killed in action over Augsburg, Germany. Our flight engineer also lost a limb during that tremendous battle. We were fortunate to come home with two of four engines through the amazing ability of our co-pilot, LT Paul Cooper
The plane was, of course, badly damaged. We buried Lt. Sutters in England and I remained as a fill-in for the balance of my tour with different crewmembers as needed.
I have never thought about this much in the past 60 odd years. However, I have two grandsons who are very interested in World War II, the 8th Air Force, and who have had the opportunity to visit the 390th Bomb Squadron Museum in Tucson, AZ.
THE TURKISK BATH
I was a Ball Turret Gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. We were based at the Parham Air Base not too far from Ipswich in England in 1943. We were flying over France and Germany on Big Daylight Raids and the Air War was at its height. Conditions were tough, food was scarce and livings in Quonsot Huts were perpetually cold. Our losses in men and planes were exceedingly high, and it was a grueling time for a 19-year-old kid who had never left home before.
On our base, we were allowed a 48-hour pass once a month; almost everyone I knew would hop a train into London. That big city was the main attraction for all of us at that time. Hotels were extremely scarce but I learned that in a pinch you could always find a bed to sleep in if you visited the Turkish Baths in one of the major hotels.
I think it was the King George or the Princess. For a few dollars you could get a rubdown, sit in the steam room and get assigned to a metal cot, which was better than sleeping in the park. I had never been to a Turkish bath and I was amazed to find a room with white marble tiers, similar to an outdoor stadium. These seats rose from the floor to the 12 or 14’ ceiling and the higher you went the hotter and the more steam you got.
I was also warned not to take to much heat as a beginner, but after being cold for a month and stepping out of the long johns I had not removed for 30 days and were stiff as cardboard, it was like getting back into the womb. It felt great! After over indulging in the steam, a short muscular bald headed Turk asked me if I would like a massage? I had never had a massage but I was to embarrass to say no. He not only beat me up with his hands, but he washed my hair, which hadn’t been washed for 3 months.
After the rubdown and bath, he wrapped me in an enormous Turkish towel, big as a blanket and carried me to a cot and laid me out. Between the rubdown and the steam I was practically unconscious when I hit the cot. When I woke up the next morning I was amazed to find I was alone in a room bigger than a gymnasium, which looked totally bare. I could not understand where everybody went. I shakily got off the cot and dressed, still weak and mighty puzzled whether this was a dream or whether I was awake.
When I walked out into the sunshine 2 or 3 policeman and 2 MP’s approached me. They wanted to know where I had come from and why I was in the building. It seemed that during the night there was a massive German Air Raid that blew apart a 3-block area of which the hotel was right in the middle. There wasn’t a window left in the building I had slept in., and the 3-block area was devastated.
There were fires burning, rubble! It was like a tremendous earthquake had hit the city. I didn’t hear the bombs; I had slept through it all. I often think that it was a miracle that the building hadn’t been completely destroyed. I realize now that I had probably been shaken and alerted to go underground for shelter but I was fast asleep and no one was able to arouse me.
When I think about the danger of the 36 missions that I flew, in reflection I realize that some of the furlough time in the British Isles was just as dangerous.