Interview with Bob Conrad by Steve Showers for the WWII Oral History Project, Center for Oral History, University of Connecticut, March 3, 2000.
SHOWERS: O.K. The first question, a pretty simple one, is just where and when were you born?
CONRAD: Yes, I was born. February 9th, 1920. If you figure that out, I’m eighty now. Although, I realize my boyish good looks will throw you off, Brooklyn, New York, February 9, 1920.
SS: I just thought after that, we would talk a little bit about your early life. You could tell me where you went to school and what some of your interests were as you were growing up?
BC: I consider myself really a Jersey guy. That birth thing I was telling you, in Brooklyn, we didn’t stay there long. My parents moved to Newark, New Jersey. They started school in [unclear], New Jersey. I was one of four kids, three sisters and I. My parents moved around from Newark, New Jersey to a little place that’s now Edison, New Jersey, near Rutgers and New Brunswick. Then from there, to Rutherford, New Jersey in Bergen County, which is ten miles from Manhattan. I finished high school there. Then from there, I moved with them to Syracuse, New York. I went through Syracuse University. I had nothing to do, ever, with anything mechanical. I would carry out the ashes on collection day in Syracuse, but as far as anything mechanical, no. The most astounding things, in fact one of the miracles of World War II, I suppose, was the Army could take a bunch of clods like me and on the basis of some aptitude tests that they shoved down your throat, assign you to a job of aircraft maintenance. So, the early years were New Jersey. I grew up and graduated from high school there. I feel a very close identity with that part of the state. I’m still in touch with some high school classmates and that’s a long time, back in the 50’s and [unclear] and all that, reunion. But that’s where I grew up, I’m really a New Jersey guy. I came here after the war. We can talk about that later on. After World War II, millions of guys were suddenly spilled back into the civilian population, or the workforce, or whatever. Again, I never had any interest in anything mechanical like that. I got into it because I was put there by the Army Air Corps, which made the discovery at Miami Beach on the aptitude tests that, here’s a guy, he really has the aptitude to make a whizbang aircraft mechanic. So, that’s where I wound up. After the war, I checked the field box and never looked back in that direction again.
SS: That’s funny. Now about how old were you then?
BC: Well, I finished college. In Syracuse, we were living in Syracuse at the time of World War II, I was a senior at Syracuse University and crowded into one of the big lecture halls at Syracuse on the 8th of December, 1941, and heard FDR make that speech about how that date would live in infamy. I lived in a part of Syracuse where there was a big population of young men. So, my draft board in Syracuse had so many men, they were able to meet their quota month after month. I didn’t really plead for this, but they gave me sort of a postponement or a continuance, or something, in my column. So, they allowed me to finish my senior year at Syracuse, get my degree. Then whamo! Five days after I marched through the stadium with my cap and gown, five days after that, I had the ODs on, the olive drab uniform, and I was learning the intricacies of a close order drill in the army out of Fort Niagara, New York.
SS: So, were you actually drafted then?
BC: Oh yes, I was a draftee. I was, my number was the seventh one out of the fish bowl. The war department drew those numbers in Washington. So, I was an early call up but I was, December of ’41…Living in Syracuse and seeing all at once this flood of young men downtown walking around on a Saturday night, in GI, olive drab uniform, I took a look at those birds and said, “I don’t want anything to do with that.” So, I was quite taken with the appearance of the Marine Corps uniform. So, I went down to the Marine Corps recruiting station in Syracuse, New York on Erie Boulevard, and tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. We were sailing along and everything was going famously through the tests and examinations they put you through in the Marine Corps recruiting office, until they put a card in front of me. It looked like a mosaic of some kind, and they said, “What numbers do you see?” And I said, “I don’t see any numbers, what numbers?” “Yes, what numbers do you see?” I didn’t see any numbers at all. That was a color chart and I flunked out. I had a kind of color blindness, I guess. So, I was out the door, “Thank you very much, Mr. Conrad but we’ll see you later.” I flunked many times. If I had succeeded, if I had entered the Marine Corps back there in the early ‘40s, I might be a cross out on some Pacific Island by now, who knows? I went in from Syracuse in June of 1942.
SS: That’s when you went into the service?
BC: That’s when I went into the service.
SS: Do you remember what was going on in the area at the time? Were people aware of the war?
BC: Well, people, at a distance, no one really
believed that we were right there, we were going to be in it. Yes, that spring of 1942, all those things
came rushing together. Suddenly the
United States was in a war. And of
course the United States had the immediate, overnight need, tens of hundreds of
thousands of men, to do all these many, many things that were needed. In our case, the Air Corps, all at once they
needed tens of thousands of men to take care of the airplanes, to fly the
airplanes. All these jobs that they had
not filled up until the last spring, and all at once, overnight need, a
desperate need because we were totally committed. The feeling in the civilian population, I was, in part of
Syracuse where I lived, I had a bunch of guys and I remember that December 7th,
that afternoon some friends and I were up at a park nearby. We were playing touch football. We had a game of touch football going the 7th
of December, 1941, Sunday, after we finished, getting dark, I went baěĄÁY
ence with this country. The feeling around, I guess the feeling was, the war still seemed rather distant to us. We kept going about our daily routine, whether it was going to a job, around the house, or in my case, on the hill in college. We just kept doing what we had been doing all along. Never really thinking all at once, your lives had been suddenly, overnight, changed. Drastically changed. So, my experience was, I happened to live in a part of town where they were able to fill their quota bringing in the draftees. But it wasn’t long after that that I was in. So, that’s where my military experience began. Not much to shout about but that’s where it began.
SS: So, the first thing they did was ship you off to basic training?
BC: Well, yes. I was sent to Fort Niagara in New York. That was really just the first stop for people entering the service. I don’t know how long I was there, not very long, a matter of days, probably. We were shipped from Fort Niagara to Miami Beach, Florida. And put through, as I say, we went to a theater there on a very swanky street on Miami Beach, and put through all these tests, these aptitude tests to determine what they would do with us. They decided, from whatever I did, that oh boy, here’s a guy that’s tailor made for engineering and aircraft school. So, a short haul in Miami Beach, about a month as I remember, to five weeks. I was put on board one of these troop trains, in those days, the troops moved by train just about everywhere. Not like today, when these guys get on the huge cargo jet airplanes. We were shipped, by train, to Lincoln, Nebraska. That’s quite a haul from Miami Beach, Florida to Lincoln, Nebraska but that’s what we did. We slept on the train, we ate on the train. Every stop where we had a few minutes, we’d ask, “Hey, where are we?” We’re in Alabama or Georgia, where are we? But Lincoln, Nebraska was a school for aircraft engineering recruits. That’s where I started school, TT, that’s technical training squadron, at Lincoln Airbase. I went through a school on, the engines as I remember it were…What the heck did we start out there, radios or inline engines, it doesn’t matter, whatever. We moved from Lincoln, Nebraska after we got our certificate which said what terrific talent we were. We went to Buffalo, New York at Curtis Wright and worked with people in that aircraft engine factory, making aircraft engines, on our way to the units that we were ultimately going to serve in. So that was it. In each case, they were fairly short stays through a matter of very few weeks, as I remember it, through this technical thing in Lincoln, Nebraska. You remember crazy things about Lincoln. The thing about Lincoln, Nebraska, I never, for crying out loud, I never think I’d been west of Buffalo, New York, but there was a huge university there, and a Big 10 football team. So, we of the service, were given passes to attend University of Nebraska football games. So, my baptism into what Big 10 football was all about, Saturday afternoons one whole side of the stadium in Nebraska was brown, it was all us clowns from the Air Corps station out there at the airport. But in Miami Beach, then to Lincoln, Nebraska, then to Buffalo, New York. Then, from Buffalo, New York, grasping this diploma in my hand, which was supposed to convince anybody that if you had any problem with your engine, that I was they guy, we were shipped to a unit, a definite thing. This was the 356th fighter group at Westover Field, Massachusetts. That’s were we were organized. We had no airplanes. We had no pilots. We were a “paper” fighter group. I was in the 359th Fighter Squadron. That’s where we did a lot more marching and things like shoveling snow, because this was January, I think, of ’43. From there, we got this squadron put together, did a lot of the basic things that recruits in any basic training military installation go through. From there, we went to Groton, Connecticut. This is where the 356th Fighter Group, I was in the 359th Fighter Squadron, there were two other squadrons, that’s where we came face to face, for the first time, with a real airplane, the B-47. We also, for the first time, got our pilots. Most of these guys, these pilots, were right out of cadet school in Texas, or some other cadet school somewhere else in the country, most of them out of Texas. So, they were about as lacking in experience in flying these birds, as we were in taking care of them. There we were in this great marriage in Groton, Connecticut, Trumbull Field in Groton, Connecticut. You get to know all these guys and you gradually, without even realizing it I suppose, we were suddenly a really presentable fighter squadron. Our guys, were up every day on training flights around the base there, around Connecticut. A lot of them lived in the east. A lot of the pilots lived in the east. So, they loved to get in those birds and fly back to the hometown and buzz the hometown, or whatever, as long as that information didn’t get back to the squadron. But we organized, really, at Groton and became a fighter squadron, a fighter group, and gradually you pick it up. You learned on the job. This is really a classic case of learning on the job. I didn’t know nothing about mechanics. I had no background or interest in mechanical things. I didn’t know the terminology or anything.
SS: What was your background from Syracuse?
BC: Well, I was just a college boy. I never had a job. I had not been employed at anything. My interest in college was getting into newspaper work. That’s what I wanted to get into. But I never had any opportunity to get anywhere near that. I had worked in New Jersey as our high school correspondent for the paper in [unclear], New Jersey across the river and I got a really thrilling job as a leg man, a police reporter, for a tabloid in Newark, New Jersey, the old Star Ledger. My job was to check the police blotter every night and call in auto accidents and fires and that kind of stuff. I was paid on a space basis. So that was my introduction into newspaper work. Along comes this war and suddenly all that is on backstage and I have to pose and carry off this assignment as an airplane maintenance guy. So, at Groton, Connecticut, we had our first up close look at a fighter plane, a real live bird, the P-47. And, the pilots were the same way. They weren’t so great. We were right on the water’s edge in Groton, Connecticut, as you can well imagine, and accidents every week. Crashes every week. Landing and take-off crashes and guys taking off and dumping in Long Island Sound. I almost had my head blown off because a gunner, an armorer was about as green in the whole thing as I was. I was out on the line, standing on the leading edge of the P-47, the fighter plane, and they had four .50 caliber guns at each wing, four and four. And I was standing in front of the leading edge and this green armorer from the cockpit, hit the button on top of the stick and (firing sounds) the guns went off. I couldn’t hear for about a half hour. But if I’d been a few feet to the left, my head would’ve gone with the .50 calibers out into the Sound someplace. So we kidded the armorer, we said, “That’s OK, you didn’t get me but you sank a sailboat out there on Long Island Sound.” So that was the experience in Groton, Connecticut. That’s a Navy town, really, a sub base there and we used to kid about how when we went to New London on a pass, we better go down the street whistling “Anchors Away” or they’d gang up on us. So, we were badly outnumbered. You learn a little about the reality of military life at that time. One of the [unclear], I don’t know whether he was a corporal or a sergeant or what, in the kitchen, in the mess hall, where we were stationed in Groton, had a racket going with some friends over in New London. He would take huge supplies of food from our GI kitchen there at Trumbull Airbase. I didn’t know what, he’d say, “Hey you, you, you get in the truck to haul this stuff”. He had a delivery to make across the bridge and down into New London and Waterford. So, we’d get in the truck, we were told by our ranking guy to get in the truck. So there we are in a GI ten-wheeler truck going over the bridge to this pier in Groton, where these shady looking characters would be greeting us. And this cook, who was running this black market thing, would have us unload the food supplies. We didn’t know, what did we know? We figured everything’s on the up. This guy had a racket going. He was making tons of money, you know, by stealing this stuff. This had nothing to do with my military career. This racket was just a little sideline on how things were in those days.
SS: It’s interesting to know that kind of stuff went on.
BC: Well, yes. I was so green and innocent. I didn’t know. But that was the thing in Groton. By this time, I live in the Bronx so it was an easy train ride down there.
SS: Were you still keeping in touch with your family?
BC: Oh yes. The experience was one day at a time, learning what to do on a P-47. Now these things, we saw some crazy things happen at Groton because the pilots were as green as we were. Just a little case in point, we looked at a 47 coming in one day for a landing. He was making the circle around, lining up on the runway. The lunatic forgot to drop his gear. So, he came in and he had one of the most fantastic belly landings you ever saw. He forgot to drop the landing gear, just forgot. That’s why he has a check-list on his wrist. Boom, boom, boom, do all these things. One of them said to drop the gear and he missed that, but he was on the runway. It scraped a little bit, wiped out an engine, the prop hits the ground, the runway and that’s that. The pilots, every week, there would be wipe-outs. I don’t think we had any fatalities. I don’t remember any fatalities. But they wiped out airplanes right and left by dumb errors, the greenness of the pilots coming and going. This was our introduction to what the thing was all about. If you want to move along, that was Groton, Connecticut.
SS: Just a couple questions about the crew. What actually made up a complete ground crew? Were you guys assigned to certain planes?
BC: Yes, each plane had its basic crew. The [generalist], the instrument specialist, the propeller specialist, the electrical specialist. They all focused on that part of the whole puzzle and nothing else. In other words, if we had a problem with the instruments, something went wrong with the instruments, we’d call Eddie [unclear] from Minnesota to come in. He was the instrument guy. Or, if we had any problem with the prop, when I talk to the kids in school I have to explain what a propeller is. But, if we had a problem with the prop, that was usually something the pilots would complain about, we’d call Frank [Marzano] from Hartford, Connecticut, or Doug Clark, who were propeller specialists and they would take that. The same way with the [unclear] hydraulic system. The crew was made up of the crew chief, this is the ground that we’re talking about, a crew chief, an assistant crew chief, an armorer and I think probably an electrician, an electrical specialist. They were assigned to one or possibly two airplanes. The crew chief, was crew chief of one airplane and that was it. He was responsible for the paper work. You sign your life away, you sign that the plane is OK to go, it turns out to be not OK to go, it’s your neck. So, the crew chief had not only the responsibility of seeing that all the work was done, and the work was exacting, but also he had to sign the papers which could hang him if anything went wrong. He was the crew chief, way back then, I’m talking about Groton, Connecticut, there wasn’t any, there weren’t the ratings, and I guess a [buck] sergeant was the guy in charge. So that’s the way the thing was shook down. You’re asking about the makeup, each squadron had, each airplane, I think about twenty-one or two airplanes in a squadron, maybe twenty-five but no more than that, each one had a roster of guys who were assigned to that. Plus, they the services of these generalists, like the instrument specialists, who roamed all over the place. Nick Phillips from Rutherford, New Jersey, was the gun camera specialist. He had to go around before every mission and make sure that the gun camera on this particular plane was loaded and ready to go. When the guys came back from a mission, he unloaded the gun camera, took it in for processing in the lab. That’s all the guy did. He didn’t have to go out and do anything like check on the plugs or the hydraulics, or the electrical system. That was our job. My job as a crew chief, later on, was to follow a checklist. Check the screens on the fuel system, the hydraulic system, the brake system, the tires, the spark plugs, every element that made up an airplane engine. The crew chief was responsible for every one of those elements, to see that if he didn’t do it, to see that somebody on the crew took care of it. We didn’t do much with the armorers but technically, we were in charge of the airplane and that was part of it. From that point on, from the airplanes and their crews, we had a flight chief. The squadron was divided into three, oh boy, I’ve got to fudge on this, three or four flights of maybe four or five airplanes. You put that altogether and you get the, the flights and then the line chief was a super mechanical guy over the whole menagerie. This is going back fifty years if I remember…I’m not sure if you had three or four flights to a squadron and a flight chief and then a line chief who was the boss over all of that. Then you break it down and get to the airplanes themselves and the crew chief. That’s the 359th Fighter Squadron. Duplicate that for the 360th and keep going until you get to the 361st. All of them had those units, then the line chief, the flight chief and all of that, boom, boom, boom, carbon copy right on down the line as far as the technical order is concerned. That says nothing about all the other people in the fighter squadron like the clerks and the [unclear], who took care of all the records on missions. Like the kitchen people who took care of all of our meals, so it was quite a conglomeration of people in the various assignments. Again, I can’t stress it too much, that I was taken in by this huge vacuum cleaner they’d used to bring in thousands of men who had to staff these jobs, overnight need to staff the fighter group, the bomber group, and all these things. Guys like me who had no experience. I didn’t know a box-end wrench from a box of crackers for crying out loud. But you go to school and then on the line you pick this stuff up. The camaraderie that developed in time was the enjoyable part of it but as far as the knowledge, very, very few of us came from any background that would be relevant to what we were doing in a fighter squadron. This guy who wrote this book, Tommy [unclear], he was an insurance agent in Columbus, Ohio. An insurance man. One of the guys in our outfit ran a very successful flower shop on 5th Avenue in New York City. Another guy was a, he was a weaver. Everything was in his fingers. He did a very delicate job of making thread and weaving things. He could make a terrific doily for your end table. Another guy, Johnny [Kayhill] from Worcester, Mass., was a history teacher in high school. He had to be one of the older guys. Billy [Maher] from Brooklyn, New York, he was in the complaint department of the local telephone company. His job was to sit there and take complaints about telephone service around Brooklyn. It was quite a conglomeration of people with different backgrounds who came, were put together to make up this fighter squadron. Well, Dick Doyle from Saginaw, Michigan, he sold tires for Firestone out there. The backgrounds make quite a story in themselves. They were diverse and, you know, none of it really, you would think, at all preparatory, or make you ready or prepared for the kind of climate that we drew in the military.
SS: You mentioned the word camaraderie, so how did all these people get along?
BC: Very well. There were a few personal feuds, clashes and so on. I don’t remember anything of any significant
proportions. We were put in it
together, we all accepted that and we got along very well. We had the guys who we liked to hang out
with, the guys who played cards all day long or all night long, the guys who
liked to howl in town, the guys who liked to get in a little travel, like
that. There were guys, when we were
overseas, we continued the pattern that we developed here in the States, in
[unclear] Field, Long Island or [unclear] Field up in New Hampshire. You develop a sort of camaraderie with
various individuals and when you go up on pass, you go out together, but that’s
just the nature of any group of strangers pushed together. You start forming friendships and some of
them lasting, I’m still in touch with some of these guys. As you can see down in Cheshire once a
month. But there were some crazy things
that happened. I wasn’t a crew chief
yet, I guess I was an assistant crew chief up in [Grenier] Field in New
Hampshire, near Manchester. Part of the
inspection you do on an airplane is, you get in the thing and start the engine
and run it up pretty good. You check a
lot of instruments to see what the performance is on those instruments. They tell you how it’s going, how the engine
is doing. And that is something you’ve
got to do before the pilot’s going to get in to go anywhere. So, it looked like a nothing job but boy,
it’s very important to know what to look for and if you spot a problem, to run
it down. So, I’m up there, my pilot was
going to go up on a traininěĄÁY
said, “General, sir, I’ve got to run this engine up and I would suggest that you move back around.” Well, a grease monkey in a cockpit of a 47 is not going to tell any freaking’ general what to do, so he as much said, “Screw you buddy.” And then, excuse me, and go ahead and explain things with his guests. I’m up there in the cockpit. I’ve got to start this engine. I’ve got to run this engine, which is going to kick up quite a prop blast when I do. He stood his ground and I had to do it because the pilot is coming out in a jeep any minute now to fly this airplane. I’ve got to get this bird ready to go. So, I got in the thing and I goosed the throttle, the throttle’s on the side, I goosed it up a little to give him an idea what power was there. He still wouldn’t move. I think the guests were getting a little nervous. Well, finally OK, I’ve got to get this son-of-a-gun to, I pushed the throttle forward and I looked up in the mirror over the cockpit, I looked up and the last thing I saw, this guy, his hat had blown off his head and he was chasing that hat and the guests were scurrying to get out of the way. I never heard a word about it. I thought I’d be put in the brig or something when the guy got back, but he knew he was wrong. I had warned him adequately, please move it. So, little things like that happened when you’re out there on the line. But I guess our job was to make sure that we were following a checklist of inspections that that plane’s going to be OK to go. If we had a problem, didn’t know what it was, we’d call a guy. There was always somebody there who could help you and steer you right. I go on like this Steve, I go on rattling away so I hope I’m not screwing up your tape.
SS: That’s fine. You’re doing really well. I’m just curious, during this whole time of training here in the States, were you guys keeping track of what was going on in the war? Were you following the events?
BC: Oh sure, yes, as best we could. We didn’t have any more access to the real information than any in the civilian world around us. But there was always concern about where you were going to be next, or tomorrow or next week, or whatever. And as it grew in intensity, and got more complicated, as the war went on, I could step up to that because you’re still in the States. You’re still living half of one leg of what you’re doing here at Groton, Connecticut, and your other leg is back in Syracuse wondering who’s going bowling this Sunday, things like that, you’re connections there. All the guys that I knew in Syracuse scattered to the four [unclear]. Bobby [Killian] was killed in the infantry somewhere. George Burlingame, got the gunner on a Navy fighter plane, was killed in the Pacific. Some of the other guys, those are the ones I know about, but you keep a little track of what’s going on. You’ve got family back there and they let you know. We did have a bit invested in what was going to happen next in the war so we were interested, yes.
SS: Were you guys still in training at this time?
BC: Well, I suppose the training never stops. No, not as such, not a training program. I don’t think of any, what would classify as any special training.
SS: What about your rank? What was your rank?
BC: Well, I went overseas as corporal. I remember sewing the corporal stripes on my uniform on the Queen Elizabeth going over. That was a trip. That was an experience.
SS: How was it, getting those orders to go overseas? How’d that feel?
BC: Well, it was inevitable. We knew it was coming, we didn’t know when. Yes, oh sure, we knew what we were in for. We were in a fighter squadron back here that was going to be in the war. Which direction, whether it was going to be Italy or England or somewhere else, we didn’t know that. In fact, when we got on the Queen out of New York, in August of 1943, all we knew was that we were going overseas. We didn’t know where the heck we were going. But on the Queen Elizabeth, a pretty good guess that it’s going to make port in the British Isles somewhere. Leaving the harbor of New York City, we had a cover of a blip for probably a couple of days out of New York. We had a blip overhead watching out for submarines and that kind of stuff. They’d seen one that had been a retaliatory vessel right there, or even air power.
SS: Do you know what time that was, the date that you got shipped over to England?
BC: In August of 1943 we left New York. It took us five days to get to Glasgow, Scotland. Then from there, a truck ride to a base in England. I don’t think we stayed in Scotland. We got in these GI trucks and they hauled us over to England. That was in late August of 1943.
SS: Now the whole squadron got orders to go over there?
BC: Oh yes. We were separate from the pilots. We, the whole ground personnel, all the ground personnel were on board the Queen Elizabeth out of New York. So, we didn’t see the pilots again until, they brought up the rear, we were established there in an airbase, an RAF training base in [Grimsby], England. Then the pilots joined up with us over there and started immediately going into training missions. More to familiarize themselves with the airplanes. We wound up at what was going to be our permanent station in [unclear], seven miles east of [unclear], very close to the Channel in, I think, October of 1943. As far as events were concerned, one of the most horrific raids that the 8th Air Force ever pulled on the Germans was the Schweinfurt Raid. The Schweinfurt Raid was where we lost eight hundred men, I think, on these eighty bombers. We weren’t in that. Our fighter squadron was not in that. We’d only gone on maybe a couple of milk runs up to that point. But I’ll never forget that day because you see these things happen and we saw it, day after day. These bombers coming back from those missions and they’re straggling in one or two at a time all over the sky. You see those red flares firing out of the B-17s, which meant that there were wounded on board. And you saw that day after day and you have to wonder who the hell is winning this war? You wonder what’s going on? Those are the things you remember. I remember seeing those guys. And I remember seeing a B-17 over Ipswich. I’m watching this 17, very low level, very low level, maybe a couple thousand feet and all at once I’m looking and you see these guys bailing out, jumping out of the B-17. I didn’t see any, a parachute open. So, whatever happened to those guys, I don’t know I couldn’t see. But, I didn’t see any chutes open. There were ten guys in one of those 17s and one, two, three, they’re just jumping out of the damn things. B-17s, when these guys were shot, when these 17s were shot up pretty badly, once in a while, one of them would land on our base. We were close to the channel so when they came straggling back from their missions, it was fairly common to have a 17, I don’t think we saw the 24s, we saw the 24s in the blue but not on our base, they would come back and have an emergency landing, the flares were going out and everything else, at our base. So, I saw the 17s come in at our base. We had a fairly long landing strip so they were able to use ours on an emergency basis. Not far from our base, there was a three mile long emergency landing strip that every kind of airplane could use and every kind of airplane could land on, the ones that were shot up badly. There was an awful lot of room on that runway. We saw these guys coming in day after day and I’ll never forget one of those 17s taxied over to where we were and they had dead onboard and they didn’t want to see anything of us. They wanted us to keep the heck out of the way. They were very protective about their other personnel. So, you see, we weren’t in combat, nobody was shooting at us on the ground, our pilots, once in a while, some didn’t come back and you’d see the MIA on the chalkboard at home, Missing In Action. Once in a while, if they knew, they’d put KIA, Killed In Action. But, you saw enough of this, maybe I was unusual, but this begins to weigh on you after a while. As I say, with no exaggeration, you wonder, Who the hell is winning this war? But, that’s all we saw. So, our pilots, we were a fighter outfit, their job was to protect the bombers, escort the bombers over and back. When they had completed their missions, when they reached their targets and dropped their bombs and were heading home, then our pilots had free reign. They could take targets of opportunity, and they did. If they saw any German planes in the air, whammo! They’d go after them. Or, they’d see targets of opportunity, meaning a flak tire or a train moving, or close to the water, ships. They would go after them with our guns. Of course, they had eight [unclear] of .50 caliber gun on those 47s. So, that was as close as we were to the war. The other part of it, where we did see more war, was when the buzz bombs started. When the Germans started throwing those buzz bombs, most of them were aimed at London and the B-2s, the awful things. They were terrible. We’d see in the morning, seven o’clock out there getting ready for a mission, a vertical contrail in the sky. That would be a B-2 launched from Holland or somewhere and we knew in ten minutes it was going to hit London. But, the buzz bombs, they were over almost on a daily basis. They had a rattley sound with a stop, that sucker was going to land. I was walking from the line, where our planes were, going to chow, over to the mess hall. You walk around the runway and it was a long hike to get over there, then up a back road. I heard one of these buzz bombs coming in and I didn’t pay any attention to the damn thing. All of us had cut out. I should’ve hit the deck. I didn’t and I got knocked on my [keister] because the concussion from the buzz bomb was just a little distance up the road from me and it was like getting slapped across the face. And I was that close, I was much too close.
SS: So, you guys were targeted?
BC: We weren’t. I think probably they were anti-personnel, they were nuisance bombs in that part of geography, that part of England. Most of the buzz bombs were supposedly fueled to reach London, or the London area. A lot of them landed around us. Some of them were shot down. They were a daily, almost a daily visitor. We were on the track from the launch pads in Holland to London. And we were right on that track so we’d see them every day, sometimes at night. We just didn’t pay that much attention to it. Two of our enlisted men were wounded. One was in Ipswich overnight. It happened to be the night the Germans hit Ipswich with a small bombing raid. This guy, I think it’s [Burl Ebert] from out in the Midwest somewhere, was in a building that was hit by one of the Luftwafa’s bombs, and he was badly injured. So he got a purple heart. And, one on the base, our base there at [unclear] was injured by a buzz bomb and he got a purple heart. So, two enlisted men got purple hearts for God’s sake. If I’d been a little closer, had a piece of debris hit me, I’d have qualified for a purple heart. Thank heaven it didn’t happen, not so much for survival reasons, but if you got a purple heart, you got another ten points towards the ride home. I would’ve gone home earlier and I would have been on a cattle boat. As it was, I went home on the Queen.
SS: Did your fighter pilots and planes go after these buzz bombs?
BC: Yes, when they were able to. They and the RAF, the RAF guys, they were wild. They loved to go hunting on the buzz bombs. But they were, that would be a rare instance where anything coming our way would be a target for one of our guys. That would usually be over the Channel, not on landfall. Incidentally, our base was right at the edge of this village, of this town, Ipswich is a pretty good sized place. But there’s a village next to Ipswich and we were very close, right across the street from the grade school, like any of our middle schools now, very much like that. On a slow day and our pilots were on a mission and weren’t going to be back for a couple of hours, I would wander around. I walked across the meadows to this area where the school was. School was not in session the day I was there, but I asked one of the guys, there were big, wide ditches outside. I was wondering, what’s this? Well, when the RAF, when the Luftwafa was coming over, the sirens would go off and the air raid sound would sound and the kids were sent out of the school to hit the deck and get into those trenches to protect them from what could’ve been a bombing raid, or any debris from a bombing raid. So, I tell that when I do the lecturing now, I tell them, “You know I was in a school just like this one. You’ve got a sign on the wall that says Fire Drill. And when you hear the bell, out you go. Well, where I was in England, when the sirens went off, it was like that only they could’ve been targets of a German bomber overhead, not some fire drill here in the school.” But the schools were the same, the same age group and all that. I like to use that for a comparison when I talk to these kids now.
SS: How’d you guys get along with the townspeople there?
BC: Very well. England is traditional, the traditional leisure time is spent in the pubs. We made full use of that, we fit right in, I did, because I used to go to London. They were very, very friendly and they had to put up with a lot of , we knew we would never have anything like what they had to put up with during the Blitz, the heavy German…that preceded the years when we got there. So, they had some pretty horrible stories to tell. I used to go to London, I dated all the British broads every chance I got, and they were so blase, so matter of fact about it. You’d say two would come in and you’d say “Where’s she tonight”. “Oh she, they got a bomb last night.” A “bum” that’s the way they pronounced it. “They got a bum last night.” That meant a bomb landed in their street. Not necessarily in London, maybe [Illford] just outside, or [unclear] just outside of London. So, they lived for the moment, for the day, and if that happened then OK, they’d move on to the next day, or tomorrow. But we got along, I think, from my experience anyway, was I think pretty good. I was a London guy. Every chance I got, I would head for London.
SS: One of the things I’m curious about is, through all this, of seeing the B-17s and all their problems, losing some of your pilots, how was the morale of the men in your group?
BC: The morale, I think, was very high. There were exceptions. There were one or two of our ground guys who were absolutely panicky if they thought they were in danger, and we did have the alarm, the air raid thing went off on a fairly regular basis. At night, the Luftwafa would send over nuisance bombs. Nothing like the massive raids that had preceded us before, but there would be these nuisance bombers and the search lights would pinpoint them and the crosshairs and all that. They’d nail one of those German bombers and then the aircraft guns would go off. So, there would be very few. These raids, we were supposed to go in some air raid shelter, but we never did. Some of these guys got kind of panicky but they were very rare exceptions. No, the morale was pretty good. Our spirits, I think, were pretty good. We were increasingly impatient as the war wore on to get the heck out, to finish it up and go home. That was a pretty general feeling, I think. The relationship between the pilots and us was unusually good. There were exceptions, again. The fighter squadron had what was known as an engineering officer, not a pilot, an engineering officer. Some lieutenant or captain, I guess he got to be a captain, who outranked. This guy was responsible for this swarm of dog faces who were the maintenance crew. And we couldn’t stand this guy. We hated him. He just rubbed his rank in, every opportunity. Every chance he got to screw us, he’d do it to the hilt. You had to just leave him alone because if you had a problem with this engineering officer, if you got too [unclear], you’d say something to your pilot and your pilot would kick his tail right back. So, we had that but our relationship with our pilots was very good. My one really upsetting experience with a pilot, we just passed the anniversary on the 26th of February, my pilot was from Laurel Springs, New Jersey, twenty-two years old. He had just gotten a new engine in his plane and, I was not a crew chief at this point, William Carter from Laurel Springs, New Jersey, I think he had just made captain. Anyway, I remember the day that Willy Carter got his first kill. When he came back, they traditionally do the barrel roll, and when Carter came in and did the barrel roll, we knew he got one. So, he came in and was really sailing. But, Carter, our plane had had an engine change, a new engine installed in our air frame. Again, I guess I was a buck sergeant. And, I was out there that day, Mack [Gillivery] from Massachusetts and I, I was out on one wing and Mack was on the other wing. Carter said, he had a new engine, we had him out there just to put slow timing on the engine, just like breaking in a new engine in on a car. It used to be you limited the miles per hour, no more. It used to be that way. So, he wanted to put some slow time on the engine. So, he came out there in the middle of the day and he said, “You guys might as well go to chow because I’m going to be up for an hour or so just putting some slow time on this.” Which meant he’d be very close to the base and we could go to chow. So, I said, I’m heading out and I got my stuff and went over heading toward the mess hall. The long walk to the mess hall. And, here he comes, Wally Carter, he’s a [unclear] young guy, twenty-four years old, I think, maybe twenty two, with a brand new engine in his airplane. He’s got to show off, so, the big thing for these hot shot pilots was to do the buzz job, see how close you can come to the ground. So, I’m approaching the mess hall and he’d been about three of these passes and then he came to that last one and his prop hit the ground. He tried to pull up. I can see that plane today. Like a pretzel, the prop looked like a pretzel. He hit the ground with that prop and he cranked it around and we think, I think he thought he could jump. He was only a few hundred feet up. Because when we found him, he had cracked that harness, which meant that he probably thought he could get out. And, he cranked that ship around, he got lined up on the runway, and that was, oh the flying speed he had, and that thing came whack, and he was killed. He was killed. He died that night. I think he broke every bone in his body. They took him to the makeshift hospital we had on the base. It was no good for anything serious. Mack and I hung around the hospital and tried to get some [unclear]. The next morning, we went over there and they said he died during the night. Great guy. He’d come out early before a mission and help us. We had to pull the prop through, you did that to break up the oil, loosen up the oil in these radial engines. Wally would come out and, nobody ever saluted him or anything like that, he was just one of the guys, and we’d pull the prop through and then he’d take off. Well, that day, he just didn’t make it. He hit the ground too low, a matter of inches, really. After that happened, the next day after we learned that he had died, I went out on the field, out close to the runway where the prop had chopped up the earth, you could see it. Well, that happened before our very eyes. So, that’s one we, pretty close, had to deal with. And the guys who were lost over in Europe, they were just as dead and killed but they were somewhere else. We didn’t see those things happen. We didn’t see these guys get shot down, or anything like that happening, ground fire or whatever. So, Wally was killed right there. We couldn’t do nothing but watch. I went out to the plane and by the time I got to the plane, I walked from the mess hall to where he hit one end of the runway, they had gotten him out of the ship and taken him to this hospital and the [unclear] had been shaken off the engine. I had a little box head wrench in my pocket. I know I checked those damn things before he went on the mission, I said I was going to do it one more time. I climbed up on that engine to make sure they were all snug, and they were. We got interrogated and the damn officers, the 8th Air Force, they tried their level best to hang that on us, that we did something wrong with that engine or that airplane. They were full of crap. You can’t imagine how resentful. I just hated that happening because that plane with a new engine was in good shape. This guy just hit the ground. Wally, he just guessed wrong that last….How about some coffee, would you like some coffee?
SS: So we left off when you had that unfortunate experience of seeing your pilot crash. It sounded like that was a pretty difficult thing to go through. What did you guys do after that? Were you just assigned another plane?
BC: Yes, another plane and another pilot and move on. We stayed in the same parking area where we were out there on the air base. That’s all you can do. I don’t remember now who followed Wally Carter. I don’t remember who our next pilot was.
SS: You guys were assigned to that specific point.
BC: That’s right.
SS: Did the planes have names at this time?
BC: I don’t know. I guess some of them did. Some in other squadrons but we didn’t. Not the guy, I worked with [Fran McGillivery] from someplace in Massachusetts, he lives in Florida now, Fran McGillivery, he was a great guy but no, we didn’t have any nose paint on the ship or anything like that. I guess we stood out. Just a routine job every day. You asked me what we did when we got out. We’d get shaken out of the sack in the barracks, probably six o’clock in the morning, or somewhere in that ballpark and go out to the line first. The first thing we wanted to know every day was what time is the scramble, what time is the mission set for? Is it at 0800 hours or 0845 hours or 0900 hours or whatever it happened to be and we had that time then to do routine inspections, a lot of them visual, and I can’t stand what happens with some of these airline things today. Why in the world? It’s such routine things that you see. Our fighter outfit, the fighter plane has under the wing an L-shaped tube which is called the pitot tube. That controls three instruments. Well, to protect the delicate interior, we had a sock on that pitot tube. And so many times our hot shot pilots would get in to start to taxi out and there’s this blasted cover still on the pitot tube. He’d say, “OK” Well, once he did, he was flaked out on three instruments, air speed and the rate of climb and that kind of stuff. So, I can remember so many times running along. The way to get their attention is not very kind to them. The way to get to their attention was to [unclear] the [eleron] or whatever, the rudder, and move it and that moves the stick in their cockpit and it gets their attention right away. Then you’d point onto the wing and say “Hold it a second” and go out and get the damn thing. So, the inspections ranged from like that, the ridiculous, to the sublime, which meant making sure that the simple things like the fuel supply, the oil supply, the hydraulic fluid, these had to be up to snuff. And, the engine, you’d check the engine. You’d run it up and check the instruments that are on an instrument panel on the fighter plane, I don’t know, the bombers may have the same way. There are the engine instruments and there are the flight instruments. The flight instruments are right up front. That tells where you are, the compass and the speed and things like that. The engine instruments tell you about the engine heat, temperature in the engine. It tells you about the fuel supply. It tells about the tachometer, how that’s going. Those are the things that you check, the routine. Something could be out of whack. If you missed it, didn’t see it, then that’s your rear, you’re responsible for that plane. It didn’t require an awful lot of work, but you do it. You check it. Like your car sitting out here. If you didn’t have enough gas in it or enough oil in it, and the red light comes on, you want to know that before you set out on a mission, on a trip anywhere. Well, the airplane’s the same way. There was a checklist of things. Everything from the landing gear, the tires. The surfaces on that plane were very important, very important. I think of some of these air crashes, they haven’t checked basic stuff like that. It’s something you can see, if you just take a look and do it. Well, the pre-flight inspection was fairly brief, but you had a certain checklist to go down through before you let a pilot get in that cockpit. If you saw something, you just discover something serious, you put a red X on that paper, that form. That meant that plane was grounded. It ain’t going anywhere until you check that out and see what it is. After the mission, they would last three or four hours, when they came back, the first thing you do when that bird sits down is fuel, first. Right up at the top was the fuel. Then you’d check the oil. You look in the oil. If there’s anything in the oil, particularly any bits of metal, and you find these things if you’re [unclear] for a long time, little things in the oil, that’s it. Red line, you’re not going anywhere until we get that checked. The allied systems, you’d check visually under that hood. You’d take the cowling off of these planes and you’d check all of the wiring. You’d check all those tubes. They all had color-coded tape around the lines. Red would be fuel. Yellow would be hydraulic fluid. Every system was important. Every joint was important. Every bit of wiring was important. You’d check all of that. Look at it and make sure that it’s OK. Because those engines, they really do a job. The engines take a real beating and any little thing like that, you check and make sure nothings wrong. So that when these guys got in and were ready to go, that plane was up to snuff. That was a daily thing. That was part of the routine. We’d get these guys in these things, make sure that their harness was correct. By the way, when my pilot, I think I told you, when he thought he had the altitude to jump and he tracked this thing [unclear] and hit the gun site. But you check things like that. They really appreciate that. The pilots rely on the thoroughness of their ground personnel to do all these things for them. You see, anything out of whack, it doesn’t take any time at all to pull it out of line and say, wait a minute, we’ve got a little work here. You check on those things. Well, that was a daily routine. Now after they’d gone, you’d get hours to kill back there. So, you’d do stupid things. You’d look around whatever fuel tanks. You had to check up the connections that are still on the fuel tank paper, or whatever it happened to be, the metal fuel tanks. You’d check the little things that are related to the operation of the airplane. Then you’d have dumb things like baseball or horseshoes or whatever. You had to stick pretty close to the line. They were gone for hours. You’d go over to the mess hall and have chow but you didn’t have an awful lot of things. You couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t go off the base. So, then the guys would sit in the tar paper shacks out on the line and play cards or write letters home or things like that. That was sort of a daily routine. The important parts, were just before a mission and when the ship came back. If the pilot had any complaints, he’d write it up on form 1A and you’d better get on that because if it isn’t fixed by the next time… I can remember, I don’t know what I was working on, but you get a report that the pilot has some problem, this engine is running too hot, that cylinder head temperature, that’s getting out of sight. So, you’d juice up the fuel mix a little bit. Make it a little richer. That breaks the temperature of the engine down, a simple fix like that. But then, I don’t remember what I was working on, but I can remember being in the hanger at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. The plane would be in the hanger and the parts all over the floor. I can remember one morning, it was before daylight. I looked up and there was a pilot standing in the doorway. I remember telling him, “Don’t worry lieutenant, she’ll be in the blue by the time you’ve got to go.” So, you develop a relationship with people in moments like that. As far as the routine, there were strange things that happened. I’ll never forget the day that our guys, this had nothing to do with our outfit, but we, the United States 8th Air Force, went into this glider invasion of Holland. I remember, I can still see that, from the horizon over here to the horizon over there, that sky was full of C-47s, each one towing a glider. They were going on some humongus operation, landing over there. These were all gliders that were supposed to land and then these guys would jump out. One of those gliders, I don’t know what the problem was, but this glider circled our base and came loose from the C-47 and he came in and landed at our base. I’ll never forget. There was a guy on there with the bagpipes and he was serenading the whole damn airbase with his bagpipes as he was circling the field. They came and got out and kissed the ground and that was that.
SS: Was that part of the Normandy Invasion?
BC: No, I don’t think so. I think it was before. No, the Normandy, I’ll never forget that. We had three missions done by daybreak that day. We had a lot of work to do. A lot of things, checking those engines. No, that was June 6th of ’44 and we knew something was going to happen. Because we had all our passes. I had a pass, I’ve still got a check in the other room from a hotel in London. I never cashed the rebate on the reservation I had to cancel. We had been grounded for two or three days. So, we knew this was about to happen. All around our base, all around the local streets in our base and the city of Ipswich, GI trucks, GIs we didn’t know from crazy outfits, and other allied forces, they were all over the place. On the day before the invasion, we were all out there with the paintbrushes. You’ve seen these airplanes with the black and white invasion stripes on there. We applied those, black and white. I got a good case of bursitis out of that. We did all of that painting and this was it. We knew they were going to go. Sure enough, the next morning, 3:00 am, they were shaking us out of the sack and saying, “Hey, we got 0430 hours as a take-off. We knew that, that was a day quite different from any of the others. I guess everybody in the world knew there would be an invasion. We didn’t know precisely when, or where. The idea of the allied forces was to keep the Germans off balance, not knowing where we were actually going to strike. The job for the 8th Air Force, was to flood that area with bombers and the fighter cover. Our fighter cover changed abruptly at that stage of the war, after D-Day, the invasion, from one of escorting bombers, to one of targets of opportunity, strafing troops and trains. That kept our guys very busy with low-level flying and it increased our schedule of maintenance on those airplanes. They were bringing them out on these hot missions, these ground cover and strafing and all of that. A far different kind of strain on an airplane from just riding along cruising, just watching for anybody taking a pop at the bombers. So, it was an entirely different type of mission. It was a lot busier time than many more missions. Before D-Day, we didn’t know exactly when that was going to be, we had it down to probably within a few days. The Germans didn’t know when and where. But to prepare for that invasion, somebody devised this wonderful idea that every Allied airplane in the air would bear the same wide black and white stripes around the wings, around the fuselage. So, that meant that the gallons of black and white paint that were spread were unbelievably high. That’s what we did. We got the buckets of paint and the brushes and go to it. We had to do it in a hurry. We didn’t have an awful lot of time. We had to get our planes so that every one of our planes would look like every other Allied plane with the black and white invasion stripes around wings and fuselage. Then, of course, it was like 3:00 am that our guys started on these missions over. Short hops, they were, compared to going to Germany. That coast over there, our guys were really peppering it.
SS: How many days a week would you work for all these missions?
BC: It was non-stop. We didn’t have any five day week or X number of hours. We were just on duty all of the time. We never knew, we were not in on the planning, when the missions would be scheduled or to where, that kind of thing. So, we were on duty and had to be available for a mission at any time.
SS: Did things change after the D-Day Invasion?
BC: Yes, the tension was pretty high. The whole tenor of the war then, these were the final chapters, we hoped. It was the only time in the whole war, that I remember, maybe others in my outfit would take issue with this one, I know that in those weeks after D-Day, there was a scare in our part of the world that the Germans would be taking some desperate measures to try to deflate us or try to dispirit us with nuisance raids and that kind of stuff. So, we saw German planes coming in and being turned back. I remember going to London and seeing these nighttime things, fireworks, with barrage balloons and missiles coming in. The RAF, bless their hearts, they were just magnificent in everything they did in that war, but after D-Day, then it was a matter of a count off. When are we going to put this thing away? At a time then when these horrible things were going on on the continent. We were aware of it in a general sort of way but we had to wait until fifty years to see a movie like “Saving Private Ryan” before we realized we were spared all of that. We’re able to learn now, at this late date of our lives, how horrible that was. So, we were blessed in that way. We were spared all of that. Our routine on the airbase was we felt that let’s get this over with. How many more weeks is this going to drag on. And then, along came the V2 things. The Germans were flying these things over and hitting London. The V1s, the buzz bombs, and that phase of the war was just an irritation. They weren’t going to win anything. They weren’t going to turn anything around but they just created something where we had to be on guard, had to be watchful. Every mission became all the more important, because every mission meant that we were that much closer to the end, and we knew that.
SS: Did you guys have confidence in the people who were running the war and planning things at the time?
BC: I have to speak only for myself. I don’t know how the other guys regard this. Yes, I think we had all kinds of confidence. We were aware of the friction at the top levels between, say, Monte Montgomery and Eisenhower. We knew that there was that but we had total confidence in our guys. Eisenhower, there couldn’t have been a better guy than Eisenhower to direct that whole effort. So, we were aware that at a level far removed from us, there were these difficulties, but we were that close to the end and we thought we were going to prevail. Our guys were going to do it. So, yes we had confidence in everybody. In our fighter squadron, I don’t think I’m alone in this, I think we had total confidence in the direction of our fighter group, the wing and the 8th Air Force itself. We had great pride in the 8th Air Force. We still have great pride in the 8th Air Force and the job that we did collectively and [communitively]. So, you’re looking back, you don’t remember. I know that we wanted to get home, that everybody wanted to get home. I still can’t hear some of the music, Sentimental Journey, I hear that, that breaks me up because I’m right back at that staging area in Northwest England, waiting to get the heck out of there. That music, that song, has great meaning to me because it just takes me back and I’m really broken up when I hear it. That’s my end of it. I remember going to dance halls in London because I was a very frequent visitor to dance halls in London. I wanted to get away from the fighter base operation. I know our nerves were getting kind of thin at that point. Whereas, we had always been able to joke it out with the French or the British or any of our allied people, wherever we ran into each other. By this time, we wanted to get out of there. The British were ready to put us on the ships and have us sail out. I can remember some ugly confrontations between our guys and some of the Brits over just, they would say, “When are you guys going to go home?” “Well, we’d love to go home right now. If you can arrange that for us, we’ll take you up on it.” I mean, it was [unclear] a bad feeling and they were out of patience and so were we. Incidentally, I discovered that there was an element in the British military. Young men who had discovered a way of life that they liked, felt comfortable in, and wanted that to go on forever. They wanted that to be their career. They wanted a war situation to continue. Because they could live this kind of life that they’d fallen in to and liked, and felt comfortable in. It’s strange, but that’s the way it was.
SS: You talked a little bit before about having to switch over from the P-47s to the P-51s. That was around the end of 1944? Was that a big change in your routine and your job?
BC: Not really, because we adapted so easily to that 51. That thing took a minimum of maintenance. It was just a sweetheart of an airplane in every way. It makes it a little difficult, being a Connecticut person, because the engine for the 47, the R2800 was made over in East Hartford, the Pratt and Whitney R2800, a great power plane. That thing could take awful beatings. Our planes would come back sometimes with cylinder heads shot off. The plane itself could take an awful lot of beatings and fly over and fly back and the engine kept on turning. The P-51, bless it’s heart, was the Rolls Royce engine in it, the [unclear] engine, was vulnerable because if a stray shot hit any of its plumbing, a coolant system for example, that mission was all over. It was time to pull that canopy back and get out. As far as the maintenance goes, it was so easy. It was an easy plane to maintain. We just fell in love with it. We knew that in the sky it was doing the job.
SS: Now did the mission of the pilots change along with that? Now they had the P-51, which could escort bombers a longer range. Did that have an impact on the amount of time that you guys had to be around the base?
BC: Gee, I don’t remember anything. Nothing stands out that I can think of. I think they fell in love with that airplane just as much as we did. For us, just maintaining the thing and for them, flying it. No, I can’t think of anything off-hand.
SS: What can you tell me about getting towards the end of the war? What do you remember about that?
BC: Well, pretty itchy by the end of the war. We knew that we were going to be released not too far down the road and we just couldn’t wait for that to happen. We started thinking more about our own and…I think, if I was typical, I guess probably I was, I think it was a sudden awareness of some tension because what were we going to do when we got back? So many guys had been lifted out of jobs or careers. We were all kids, very young people. I had not had a regular job. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. What am I going to be doing? I’d like to get into something, get married and get a family going and all that. There was, I think it got a little bit testy, I think of the guys, because we were all on edge about, yes, we want to get out. Yes, we’re looking for that discharge paper, we want to get out. But, then what? Then what are we going to do? I mentioned it way early in our conversation, the guy from Providence, Rhode Island, Fred Durham, had been his whole young career at that time, in lace, making lace, a very delicate kind of thing to do. The war wiped him out. He couldn’t come back in with what was left of his stubby fingers. He couldn’t come back to that and he talked about this. He couldn’t do it. What was he going to do? Had to start something entirely new. A lot of the guys did not know what their job situation would be, because they had not really been into, in any meaningful way, into a career. They were I their upper teens, twenty years old, or so. They hadn’t been in the job market that long to feel comfortable about going back to something. The guy in the Manhattan 5th Avenue, his people took care of his flower shop there, I suppose he could’ve walked back and take up where he left off. But a lot of the guys, in terms of a career, a line of work, a profession or a job or whatever, I think a lot of guys were kind of uneasy about what it was going to be. We had to put on this celebratory attitude about being finally released. There is one thing that our war had, that the subsequent wars don’t have, when we came back and we sailed into New York Harbor, I was on the Queen Elizabeth. That was a tremendous emotional experience. Thousands of guys on this Queen and you come into New York Harbor and you sail by the Statue of Liberty, and you know you’re back in the United States. You know you’re back home. It was a slow gliding past the Statue of Liberty, and the people on the pier when we got there, the band. These guys coming back from the Gulf, or whatever, they get in a jet plane and fly. They don’t see the Statue of Liberty. It’s like one airbase to another airbase, entirely different kind of experience.
SS: Now towards the end, were you given your own plane by that time? Had you been in charge of a particular P-51 as the war wound down?
BC: Yes, that’s the same organizational system carried over from one plane to the next. My plane was, we had squadron letters, we’d make letters on the side of the fuselage. OC were the letters for the 359th Fighter Squadron. A was my plane. I was a crew chief on OCA. That carried over from the 47s, from the jug, same letters, just a different type of paper work. The maintenance, the checklist, was essentially the same kind of thing in maintaining. It carried right over so there wasn’t much of a change that way.
SS: Do you remember VE Day?
BC: Barely, yes. I think I was in London. Funny things happen, a study in contrasts, your mentioned VE Day. Yes, we all had passes. I was in London. The celebration was just, anything went. In stark contrast, a little bit earlier when Roosevelt died, when Franklin Roosevelt died, I remember being in London and the British, it was like a member of the family. People would approach you with long faces. “Oh, I’m so sorry you lost your president.” It was an emotional experience for them. Here we were Americans, we’ve lost a very important guy in our lives, and their lives as well. Such somber, serious reaction, the atmosphere after Franklin Roosevelt died. And this Whoopee after VE-Day was the same setting, the same characters, the same people and all that, but quite a different thing. I don’t remember when I parted with that base. I think most of my fighter squadron, we went to a staging area in the northwest coast of England. There to wait until we got our marching orders to go back to South Hampton and board the Queen for the ride back home. In those very few days up in that staging area, I was assigned the job of being an MP. I had the military police band on my uniform. I walked around as though I knew what I was doing, I think I carried a .45 on my hip. We were just killing time to get out. By this time, the fighter squadron, and its mission and our routine was history. It was that recently, but that was behind us now and our intention was on getting back home and trying to get on with our lives.
SS: Did you guys have any possibility of being shipped to the Pacific. Yes. We talked about that. That was a very hard rumor. We didn’t know. That was rumored that’s where we were going next. We would be going to the Pacific. It only lasted a very few days. Finally, we were told no, we were going back to New York. Yes, that was kind of a disturbing rumor. I think it was probably more then a rumor. We didn’t know exactly what the course would be or when the other side of the world, we were told we might be in it. That was kind of an anxious time there for a very short time.
SS: When did you wind up coming back to New York?
BC: I think it was the 17th of September, ’45.
SS: Japan had also surrendered by that time.
SS: How did you guys feel about VJ-Day and the atomic bomb?
BC: Well, we didn’t have much information. I think it was some time after then before we realized how big that was, the scale and everything else. It was a big bang when it happened. The British press, they tried to convince their world that they, the British, had been instrumental in this. It was kind of a pathetic, amusing snow job that they were trying to pull. I don’t think we knew enough at that moment in our lives, in that moment of the war, the end of the war, to evaluate things. We were just beginning to get the trickling in reports on the much closer to us, terrible disclosures about the camps in Germany, the Holocaust and all that, it’s just unbelievable. You sort of turn away from that. You don’t want to hear it. My mind isn’t that clear now as to what we did and how we did it. Once you know you’re through, as far as the missions, as far as the airplanes, that’s over and done baby, then it was a question of assembling your stuff. When I went back to the base form that college thing in [unclear], England, I didn’t know anybody. You get back to the base where I’d been the last couple of years, I didn’t know anybody. Some guy I’d never saw in my life was in my sack. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough. We got on those GI trucks and got hauled over to the staging area. I can’t remember the name of the town, way up on the western coast of England, on the Irish sea. I don’t remember that much about that. I know that time we were worried we might get stuck in some [picky] regulations. It was dog eat dog. Everyone wanted to get out and nobody wanted to get stuck so you had to walk a very tight line about doing anything that somebody could grab you and put you aside for a while. You didn’t want to get out of the moving track to the Queen. Even that just one little experience, both coming over and going back, just riding in the Queen Elizabeth with all of the guys… We had on - off. We had a bunk one night and the next night somebody else had the bunk. It was [unclear] the use of the bunk. When you’re not in the bunk, you were on the deck somewhere, sleeping on the deck. The supplies were dwindling as far as the PX was concerned, the [unclear] and that kind of stuff. Just to get that ride home and be looking for landfall, in a same way but for a different kind of a reason this time, that’s home. Going over, oh here we are. Where do we go from here? A moment of great fright when there was an alarm of a U-Boat in the area on the way over. But then we saw those gorgeous Spitfires from the RAF coming on and we’re safe now.
SS: What happened to you after the war?
BC: After the war, suddenly confronted with the necessity of finding a job, not having had one going in, I still had this idea I wanted to get into newspaper work. So, I got a job in New York City. My folks lived in the Bronx. I was up in the Bronx, Pellham Bay area, the Bronx. I got a job with Eastern Airlines in the reservations department. I was a reservations agent in the Grand Central terminal building, 5th floor in that building. I worked for probably two years, yes because I started in Connecticut in ’47. I worked with Eastern Airlines reservations, just booking. You had your headset on, you’re talking to people, passengers you’re making reservations for Detroit or Miami or whatever. It was known as the Great Silver Fleet. We were given, as employees of Eastern, we were given what they called a C3 pass. We could ride them without paying. But, they weren’t going anywhere I wanted to go so I never took advantage of that. I got a job with them. Then I wanted to get into newspaper work. I had never had a job anywhere. I had no experience. So, I looked at the trade paper for journalists, a magazine called Editor and Publisher. Editor and Publisher had a big classified section in the back and I picked that thing over. I wrote letters of application to, I would guess probably half a dozen papers in the Northeast. Then I saw this add for a weekly paper, what I thought was Southington, Connecticut. Southington, Connecticut, I remember getting off the train…unclear] “Hey, boy we’ve got one.” It was a weekly paper looking for a general assignment reporter and I got in touch with the guy. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy or a better arrangement. We took to each other immediately, the publisher, the owner of this paper. He had been the editor of the Italian edition of Yank Magazine. He was in the Army somewhere over in Italy. Then he went back to this paper that he had bought prior to the war. He was staffing it, so he grabbed me and I started there with no experience. I started covering everything in Southington from weekend high school football to the Monday night board of education meeting or a finance board, the selectman’s office, the fire department, the police, the whole thing. You do everything in a weekly paper. You write wonderful descriptions of wedding gowns for a weekend wedding. So, then after I’d been with them for ten years, fifteen years, somewhere in that ballpark. In the meantime, I had taken a weekend job at the Hartford Times on the copy desk, processing copy. My boss in Southington had a falling out with his business manager. My boss walked across the street to a drug store, called a broker in New York City, and put the damn thing on the block. Suddenly, I’d been [unhorsed]. Well, I had a job but they couldn’t take the new guy that came in. So I exercised my connection with the Hartford Times. “Oh sure, come on in.” So, I got a job on the state desk at the Hartford Times in 1962. I stayed there until the sucker went belly up in ’76. I moved right along but I must say, again, [unclear]. I had a pretty good run. I got into things I wanted to do and liked to do and felt that I could do. So, I did the routine stuff on the Hartford Times. Everything from covering fires and political conventions and that sort of stuff. One of the craziest assignments, there had been a rumor and a sighting of a panther up in the Litchfield Hills. So, they sent me out to track down the panther. I’m knocking on doors of farmhouses saying, “Pardon me ma’am, have you any panthers lately?” You did crazy things. Anyway, I got into the state capitol and there I found my home, that’s what I wanted to do, covering government and politics. So, I’ve been in that for 30 years, I guess, covering the state capitol and all the governors. (End of Tape)
BC: Casually one day, to Billy [unclear], who was the PR flak for the department of transportation. We’re talking about our kids and things like that and this guy, I mentioned to [Keese] that, “Hey, Bob, [unclear] is out of college, he’s looking for a summer job..” Keese goes right to work on the case. The next thing I know, he’s got a job with the DOT for the summer. I wasn’t asking for that. But I’ve covered every governor since John Dempsy in the ‘60’s. I don’t suppose I’ll be around for the next one. That’s been my career, in newspapers generally, but since the middle ‘60’s, it’s been fine tuned to state legislature and state politics.
SS: Being in the job that you’re in, working in journalism and the journalism field, what do you think about how World War II is portrayed?
BC: I think there’s a greater interest now, recently, in World War II. I think this generation is suddenly realizing that, the people like Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, people have been pretty serious about this. They realize that the people of that generation, my guys, my generation, who saved the world. How can you say that without sounding awfully conceited? We, collectively, really saved the freaking world, World War II guys. I can say that because I was not a combat guy. I think there’s greater interest now in that episode, that[unclear], in World War II, people involved in that and what they did related to the present scene. I think there’s more curiosity and really, genuine interest in what we did. One case in point, on one of these speaking tours that I did with the guys from Cheshire, I love to do that. I love to get out and talk to these kids. You want to hug them, I’m telling you. One of the speeches was at a grade school in Hamden. You’re giving your spiel. Ted Edgerton is talking about how the pilots would be shaken up at 3:00 am and then the first thing you did, you’d go to breakfast, and he’d tell a story of going on a bombing raid. Then the questions, a kid up front, a little boy, “What did you have for breakfast, what’d they serve you for breakfast?” But in my case, I talked about, we had pictures on the wall, like the picture I’ve got in the den, of planes and mine, the 51, and I told a little bit about the 51. There’s a little girl, I think probably ten or eleven years old, and she’s got her hand up. “Yes?” Would I tell her about the Mustang? I couldn’t believe what I’m hearing. There’s this little kid who’s very serious about it. Would I tell her about the, I think she called it a Mustang, not a 51. She had read enough to know there is such a thing, there was such a thing. Now there’s this guy who had some close association with them. She’s going to ask this guy, me, what about the 51? Moments like that, you want to hug that kid. They are serious. I think that’s typical of their coming generation. They want to know about us. That guy on the phone just a few minutes ago, Shawn from Wallingford, he’s one of my grandsons. He and his sisters, they really, seriously want to see anything that we can provide them with that connects us with World War II. I don’t think I’ve got the [unclear] and I’ve got the stuff I wore on my uniform. It’s in the drawer in my desk. The kids want to see that. They want to parade that around the schools where they go. I think there is a pretty serious interest now in that chapter in American Life because some of us old birds are still walking around. So, let’s find out.
SS: That’s great. One of the last things that I would ask you is simply is there anything that you want to add to the overall story? Is there anything you think you might have missed? How would you rate your overall experience of being in the war?
BC: It was an experience of a lifetime. You can’t duplicate it. Even as minimal a job as I had, and I can’t stress how much I realize what a minimal job I had, but even at that distance from the real war. I was never in the real freaking war. I saw a lot and came close a few times but compared to what some of these guys, [unclear] brother, I’m just humbled by any connection with any of those guys. I don’t know that there’s anything I could add to it. My experience was something of a lifetime. I can’t remember dumb things. Like this morning, I’m getting up for breakfast and I was [unclear] my car and I can’t remember my license for God’s sakes. I couldn’t remember the letters. I can’t remember that. But I can remember some of those moments over there. That day that I saw Wally Connor, oh God, I tell you I get weepy when I think about it. It really breaks me up. You’re so helpless, so helpless. You can’t do anything. But that’s such a tiny little experience. It had nothing related to the big picture. I think collectively we probably did make some contribution, but you can’t compare with what a lot of those poor guys ran into. I’m certainly aware of that so I feel very lucky that I got that close but no closer. You form friendships that are still alive today. These reunions, we just look forward to them so much. One of the great organizers, he’s in Ocalla, Florida now, he was one of the pilots and he flew OCA. He flew my bird and I don’t remember him at all but we start talking about things. It all comes back. Well Steve, I don’t know if I’ve done anything in line with what you had in mind…
SS: You did a really good job. I really appreciate your time. Thank you very much.