“She Is a Hell of a Big Ship”

THE MOVEMENT OF THE 303RD’S ground element was uneventful. Many men were treated to new landscapes and skylines, while others, such as Eugene O’Brien, passed through familiar territory: “We finally came to Chicago and our train stopped to pick up more soldiers. The car I was riding in stopped at 66th Street and Indiana Avenue. I lived at 6936 Indiana, and if it wasn’t for the tall trees, I would be able to see my home.”1 By August 27, the train had reached Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “05:00 P.M. Are at Pittsburg [sic], Pennsylvania. Stopped to water up the train,” recorded the unit diary. “All men are ordered off the train and given exercise. Men enjoyed themselves waving at young ladies.”2 The next day the unit reached Fort Dix, New Jersey, where the men underwent final preparations before embarking for England.

While the ground echelon made its way east, the 303rd’s aircrews and a few select ground personnel kept busy. Among other activities the men transferred the group’s aircraft to units still in training, typed orders and other administrative directives, packed what they were allowed to take and attended more classes. They also amused themselves as described by Ehle Reber on September 2: “Ground school in morning. Softball in afternoon with E.M. [enlisted men]—11–0 our favor in 4 innings. Beer Bust afterwards up the canyon. Stock [Donald Stockton] and I killed rattler. I think [Glenn] Hagenbuch is getting married soon. Kidded hell out of him. Hagenbuch, [Lloyd] Cole and [Billy] Southworth become captains tomorrow. Party in order. No flying, no ships.”

Reber noted that the expectations of a promotion party were indeed realized the following day after the 427th Bomb Squadron beat the 360th at softball, 6–1. “Captains gave party in evening at Paso Del Norte Spanish Room. Bed late. Bryant and Soha out of this world [drunk]. Some more too. Leave tomorrow. Hagenbuch marriage off. Sad.”

The ground element left Fort Dix the next day, September 4, for the port at New York, where the men were loaded aboard a ferry. The unit diary recorded the particulars: “Disembarked from ferry boat onto pier at 08:00 P.M. Boarded the second largest boat in the world—R.M.S. Queen Mary. The men were divided into two sections, one section to sleep below deck in cabins and the other section to sleep on deck. Sleeping positions will be alternated every twenty-four hours throughout the trip.”

The Queen Mary slipped her moorings for the Atlantic crossing the following day and the 303rd’s men continued their explorations of her attributes: “Confined investigation of the ship disclosed that she is a hell of a big ship. The halls and passage ways are finished in bird’s eye maple. Mahogany, black walnut and crome [sic] plated steel are used throughout the dining hall and stairways. The cabins are beautifully finished and each cabin has a private bathroom with tub.”3

Despite its fine furnishings, the ship—which normally sailed with a total of three thousand passengers and crew—was overcrowded to an astonishing degree and was much less comfortable than it would have been in regular service. “There are approximately 18,500 people aboard ship. These figures include American troops, R.A.F. troops, nurses and crew.” Feeding so many men was an all-day exercise. Men finished one meal only to get in line for the next: “Meals are served twice daily in six settings. Each man wears a button which identifies his setting number.”4

The voyage was a smooth one for the first few days as described by the unit diary entry for September 7: “Ship still going full speed. Weather holding up fine although it is very windy. Life boat and fire drill[s] were held today. . . . Ship changes course quite frequently. No other ships were sighted during the day. Life belts are required to be worn constantly and quite a number of the men were repremanded [sic] for not complying with the order. Antiaircraft guns were fired today for practice.”5

But the weather turned poor by September 9. “Sea is getting rough. There was a light rainfall this morning.”6 John Ford, who had been assigned to the captain of the ship as a liaison officer, recalled this point in the journey. “There were two of us and we were berthed on sofas in his cabin. It was a great break as almost all the other men were stacked three-high or more in hammocks on the lower decks. The captain told me to just tell his steward what I wanted to eat and when. I ate my way across the Atlantic on fried egg sandwiches.

“And then we ran into rough seas,” Ford said. “And I got seasick. It got so bad that I had to go below decks with everyone else where the motion wasn’t so bad. At the same time we were issued 1903 Springfield rifles. They were old World War I weapons covered with Cosmoline—a greasy, waxy, rust preventative—and we had to clean them. I was miserable in my hammock as I scraped and rubbed and polished that rifle.”

“Land Ho!” The unit diarist waxed colorful on September 11, 1942. “The men awoke this morning to find several Spitfires and other planes acting as escort. For several hours the ship slowly moved up a channel between green rolling hills and arrived at Glasgow Harbor, Scotland, at about 10:00 A.M.”7 The 303rd’s men were ferried from the ship to a wharf at Greenock. John Ford recalled the disembarkation: “When we got to Scotland they made us put on our Class A uniforms. Then they gave us two bandoliers of ammunition for our rifles, formed us up and marched us to the train station. I think they wanted to boost the morale of the locals. At the station, they took away our rifles and ammunition.”

From Greenock the men were entrained and sent south. “During the daylight hours,” the unit diary recorded, “the men eagerly looked at the countryside. Children lined the tracks every time the train passed a city or town and the boys tossed them candy bars and pennys [sic]. Tinned rations were opened at 2:00 P.M. and again about 9:00 P.M. The men declared them very good.”8 The unit arrived at the small town of Thrapston, in Northamptonshire, early the next morning, September 12. From there, they were taken a short distance by truck to the airfield at Molesworth, officially, Station 107. As ground crews and support personnel, it would be their home for the duration of the war.

The 303rd’s men found Molesworth to be a fairly well-prepared base. Built during 1940 and 1941, it was briefly used at different times by the RAF, the RAAF and even a USAAF unit. In fact, the first American raid against occupied Europe—little more than a publicity stunt—was launched from England on July 4, 1942, using borrowed British aircraft. Nevertheless, the base was unoccupied when the 303rd arrived: “The quarters are quite comfortable, far better than any of the men dreamed of getting. There are steel cot beds and mattresses (which are in three sections), stoves and all the other conveniences of home handy. The men are well satisfied.”9

Regardless of their satisfaction, the men were without most of their gear and equipment. There followed several days during which many of them were at loose ends as they waited for the material they needed to do their jobs. By September 19, they had started to get a toehold: “S-1 is operating, although unfamiliar with base duties; S-2 is operating, although unfamiliar with R.A.F. S-2; S-3 is operating although unfamiliar with R.A.F. S-3; S-4 is operating, although they have nothing to operate with.”10

Molesworth was a big base, and the men obviously needed to get around to perform their jobs. “We were each given a bicycle when we arrived at Molesworth,” said John Ford. “It was part of the Lend-Lease agreement. But the brakes were set up opposite of how they were arranged in the States. The front brakes were on the wrong side and so there were a lot of wrecks and a lot of guys with scrapes and bruises and stitches during those first few weeks.”

*   *   *

PERVERSELY, THE PROGRESS of the 303rd’s air element was much slower than that of the ground personnel. The aircrews left Biggs by train on September 4 and arrived at Kellogg Field in Battle Creek, Michigan, on September 7. There, they waited for new aircraft, which trickled in slowly; only three B-17s of an eventual thirty-five were delivered to the 303rd during the first week. The 427th Bomb Squadron received its first, a B-17F, on September 14, and it was assigned to Harry Robey. Ehle Reber mentioned it in his diary on September 16: “Lt. Robey’s plane may be rejected as it is incomplete. First plane put out by Douglas.”

Because Boeing didn’t have the capacity to manufacture the B-17 in the numbers required by the USAAF, both Douglas in Long Beach, California, and Lockheed Vega at Burbank, were contracted to produce the big bomber. The first models produced by those two manufacturers, beginning in 1942, were B-17Fs.

The learning curve for both Douglas and Lockheed Vega was a steep one. Although it didn’t take long for both companies to begin producing quality aircraft using Boeing’s design, Ehle Reber’s diary entries indicate that there were problems early on. On September 17, he wrote: “Lt. Robey’s Douglas B-17F was rejected so he received a Boeing this evening.” But his entry for September 22 indicated that the unit’s rejection of the Douglas-built aircraft was itself rejected by higher headquarters. “Have to keep Douglas B-17F. Hope I don’t get it.” The feeling seemed to be that a Boeing-built aircraft was the genuine article whereas anything else was an ersatz copy.

But it wasn’t long before the quality of the aircraft from all the manufacturers proved to be outstanding. In fact, most crews had no idea which of the three companies produced the individual aircraft they flew on any given mission. Ultimately, of the 12,700 B-17s built, Douglas and Lockheed Vega combined to produce 5,750—just less than half.

The new B-17Fs that were delivered to Reber and the rest of the 303rd’s aircrews were the latest iteration of an aircraft that in due course became the icon of the daytime strategic bombing campaign against Germany. Boeing financed, designed and built the B-17 in less than a year in response to a 1934 Army Air Corps tender for a multi-engine bomber capable of reaching targets at what were then considered extraordinarily long ranges. The Army wanted a bomber with a range of two thousand miles and a top speed of 250 miles per hour. Boeing’s four-engine entry, the Model 299, flew for the first time on July 28, 1935. The following month the aircraft was flown to Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio, where it dramatically outperformed the two-engine entries offered by Martin and Douglas.

But human error nearly killed the project. On October 30, 1935, shortly after taking off with an Army pilot and a Boeing copilot at the controls, the aircraft crashed. Both pilots were killed and several passengers were badly injured. The gust locks, which kept the flight controls from being battered by wind while the aircraft was parked on the ground, were still engaged. Consequently, the wreck that had been the Boeing entrant obviously couldn’t finish the competition and was disqualified. Still, despite the fact that the cost of the big bomber was nearly twice that of the other two entrants, the Army remained very interested in Boeing’s design.

Notwithstanding the fact that Douglas was declared the winner of the competition and awarded a contract for 133 B-18s, the Army exercised some legal high jinks and contracted with Boeing for thirteen improved examples of the Model 299, designated YB-17. The program evolved into a regular procurement as Boeing worked with the Army to deliver steadily improved models ranging from the B-17A to the B-17E. The production of these models together totaled fewer than 650 examples, with the B-17C being the first to see combat. The RAF operated twenty B-17Cs with little success during the summer of 1941 before withdrawing them from service.

The B-17F was the first model to see combat in large numbers over Europe. It was also produced in very large numbers, and 3,405 were delivered to the USAAF. With a wingspan of more than 103 feet and a length of nearly 75 feet, it incorporated improvements that made it dramatically more capable than earlier models. It was powered by four Wright Cyclone R-1820 radial engines that gave it a top speed of 325 miles per hour, although such speeds were rarely if ever achieved in combat. It typically cruised at 160 miles per hour and had a theoretical service ceiling of 37,500 feet, a range that ultimately was extended to more than 3,500 miles, and a payload of up to eight thousand pounds. It most commonly carried eleven .50-caliber machine guns: one in each cheek, two in the dorsal turret, one in the radio operator’s compartment, two in the ball turret, one at each waist station and two in the tail.

Ehle Reber was assigned a newly arrived B-17F at Battle Creek on September 23. During the next few days he and his crew uncovered a number of discrepancies that required them to fly it to Patterson Field at Dayton, Ohio, on September 27. There were technicians at Patterson qualified to make the needed repairs and modifications.

Reber was the sort of young man who saw opportunities for fun and diversion at every turn. One such opportunity during the flight from Battle Creek to Dayton was the family of Milton Conver, his bombardier: “Finally took off at 17:45 for Dayton and Patterson, via Cincinnati where we buzzed Milt’s home. Landed at Dayton. Arranged to have plane fixed. Went with Milt to town where we met his folks at the Biltmore Hotel. Went out to The Farm [Conver’s house]. Had a steak dinner and drank Martinis and beer. To bed about 0230.”

Reber enjoyed the next night as well. “Went in and checked the airplane until about 1700 then out to The Farm. That nite we went into Cincinnati. . . . Had a wonderful time at the Beverley Hills Country Club over the border in Kentucky. Listened to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. Home late.” And a night or two later: “Stayed at the Netherland’s Plaza at Cincinnati last nite. Best in town and really nice. Up at 1130 and then Milt and I met Mr. Conver and went to couple clubs.”

Reber and his crew finally returned to Battle Creek on September 30, after having entertained Conver’s sister through the previous night. “No sleep. Caught bus at 0500 for Dayton where we met rest of fellas. Took off about 1000. Jerry Jinx painted on plane. Landed at about 1130 at Battle Creek. Major Sheridan unhappy.” As it developed, Reber’s commanders didn’t appreciate his extracurricular activities, and he was consequently assigned duty as the 427th’s officer of the day for eight days running.

The 303rd’s aircrews continued to wait at Battle Creek during the first few days of October while their aircraft were prepared for the trip to England. These were the bombers the men would take into combat, and they began naming and personalizing them right away. Traditionally, the name was the pilot’s prerogative, however many of them let their crews decide. Mel Schulstad lined up his crew and asked what ideas they had. “I started with the navigator. He said ‘I dunno.’ And then I asked the bombardier and he said ‘I dunno.’ Copilot? ‘I dunno.’” The answer was the same as Schulstad queried his engineer, ball turret gunner and waist gunners. Finally, he stood in front of the tail gunner. “He shrugged his shoulders and said ‘beats me.’ And that became the name of our airplane—Beats Me!?

Finally, on October 4, a total of seven aircraft from the 358th and the 427th flew through foul weather to Bangor, Maine. Bangor was the final stateside staging point for bombers headed across the North Atlantic. The time spent waiting at Battle Creek was excellent practice for what was required of the men at Bangor—more waiting. They dealt with it in their usual way: “Being confined to the post here is rather rugged,” recorded Reber. “We get kind of tired in the evening [as] about all there is to do is drink or go to bed. Officers club is pretty nice. Had party in evening.”

Reber also noted how the 303rd, composed as it was of four different squadrons, was perpetually in a state of flux as personnel joined and others departed for a variety of reasons—even on the cusp of moving to a combat theater. This also illustrated the point that America’s airmen were not always highly motivated or of perfect caliber: “Should get a new assistant radio operator as mine doesn’t show much initiative or what it takes. S/Sgt Gray, my radio operator, still in hospital at Kellogg Field with strep infection. May get replacement. Lt. Goodale was transferred out of squadron and Lt. Illgen took his place on Hayes’s crew.”

It was nineteen days before Reber and his crew escaped Bangor for Gander in Newfoundland. “Gander sure is the last outpost. It is quite desolate here. A few WAACs here, but other than them, women are [at] a premium. Oh! Yes, [movie star] Joan Blondell is here with USO troupe. She stays in our barracks. Shades of civilization. War atmosphere is getting more prevalent the closer we get to England. Not so very cold here yet. The ‘Newfies’ (Newfoundlanders) all seem to have false teeth. Lack of fresh milk, fruit and vegetables, they say.”

Reber was a young man who especially liked the ladies. After nearly a week at Gander—stuck and waiting for weather good enough to cross the Atlantic—he made an observation about the Newfoundland women. His words are insensitive but utterly typical of a self-assured but not yet socially adept or mature young man: “Maybe tomorrow we leave. Women, who were first Haints, are now looking better. Fellas will probably be dating the Newfies soon. A Haint, incidentally, is a girl who could jump over two parked cars and run up a thorn tree and never get a scratch. In other words a bag!”

The 303rd’s crews started to leave Newfoundland during late October 1942. A great deal of effort and material had been expended to prepare the route. It featured divert airfields in Greenland and Iceland, and a sophisticated weather forecasting and reconnaissance system. Still, the crossing was treacherous and characterized by unpredictable weather. That weather, especially ice and snow, often clawed aircraft out of the sky and into the icy North Atlantic, where no one could survive. During some of the worst months, losses along this northern route nearly equaled those being sustained in combat. It was a flight that all of the men dreaded.

Mel Schulstad remembered that his crew was especially well prepared before leaving Newfoundland. “They had heard that there was a shortage of booze over there [England] and that getting hold of a good bottle of Scotch or whiskey could be a problem.” His crew resolved to do their part to alleviate the island nation’s supposed dearth of spirits and bought two cases of various hard liquors. But there was little room for it in the aircraft, which was carrying an extra passenger and other assorted baggage and cargo. “They wrapped the bottles up end-to-end in wool GI blankets,” said Schulstad. “And then the flight engineer opened a port on the bottom of the wing. They reached up and fed about ten feet of blanket-wrapped bottles through that port and along the inside of the wing.”

Despite the hazards, the 303rd was the first bomb group to make the North Atlantic crossing without incident. But there were close calls. Bill Neff was the 359th’s engineering officer and hitched a ride with the Harold Stouse crew. After the takeoff from Gander, Neff grew bored and searched for a place to stretch out and relax. He ducked into the tunnel that ran below the pilot’s compartment and into the nose of the aircraft. There he started arranging a canvas engine cover so that he could lie down. In the process he lost his balance.

I reached back to catch it [his balance] and put my hand on the forward access door for stability. The door was not latched and my hand and my ass were, all at once, hanging out in the slipstream, with my neck on one side of the door frame and my legs on the opposite side. I was able to get back inside and tried to close and latch the door by banging it shut in rapid attempts with the aircraft [?] sprung in the flight position. The catch wouldn’t catch. The cockpit heard my banging attempts and thought someone was shooting at us in the air. Immediately they took evasive action which startled the whole crew.11

Upon crossing the Atlantic, most of the crews landed at Prestwick, Scotland. Van White made the trip with the Carl Morales crew. “We got out of the airplane and it was cold! One of the first things I saw was a little gal at the wheel of an aircraft tug. Her hands were bare and her fingers were purple from the freezing weather. I asked her where in the world her gloves were and she answered in that very heavy brogue, ‘I ’aven’t got none.’”

“Anyway,” White said, “they took us to the RAF mess hall and it reeked of Brussels sprouts and mutton. And that’s what I smelled at mealtime for the next several years—Brussels sprouts and mutton.” White never got over the stink of what was a ubiquitous meal through the rest of the war.

The group’s leadership tried to keep the ground echelon personnel at Molesworth busy with classes and various housekeeping projects, but after nearly six weeks it grew tiresome. Consequently, the arrival of the first aircraft was marked with a certain amount of excitement. “The first section of the Air Echelon, consisting of six B-17F airplanes, arrived over this station at 3:45 P.M. The first plane, Serial No. 41-24608 [named Yahoodi], touched wheels at exactly 1551 hours, October 21, 1942. These planes are assigned to the 359th Bombardment Squadron.”12

Mel Schulstad was part of the 360th Bombardment Squadron and arrived at Molesworth several days later. However, the realities of war hit him before he ever reached the base. Not long after getting airborne out of Prestwick his formation was directed to divert to an RAF bomber base; the weather at Molesworth was too poor to land. The RAF personnel greeted the Americans warmly, fed them and put them up for the night in an old estate house. “A batman led four of us officers upstairs to a room in the corner of the house that had four beds, four tables and four chairs,” said Schulstad. “It was obviously occupied by somebody; there were pictures of Mama and the kids, ashes in the ashtrays and the usual sorts of things. And this batman started going around and clearing off all these things and dumping them into sacks that he put out in the hall.

“And I said, wait a minute. You don’t have to do that—we’re just going to stay overnight. He looked at me and said, ‘But they didn’t come back last night.’” Schulstad was struck by a sudden realization. “That was the first time it entered my mind that people went out but didn’t come back. It was four officers and God knows how many others. That made quite an impression.

“The next morning [October 24, 1942] we had breakfast and went out to the airplane.” Schulstad eyeballed some of the RAF’s Wellington bombers just returned from the previous night’s mission. “They were full of flak holes—shot and torn up.” He inspected one particular aircraft carefully. “I looked at the wings and engines and came around to the tail gun position, which was a sort of round, glass cage. And there was a job that hadn’t been finished. There were the remains of a human being. They hadn’t quite got around to clearing it out yet. And I walked away from there and thought to my country-boy self: My God, people really do get killed, don’t they?”

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