Interview with Charles Theriault, by Steve Showers for the Voices from the Second World War: An Oral History, Center for Oral History, University of Connecticut, 30 March 2000.
STEVE SHOWERS: We’ll just start out with something pretty basic in that where and when you were born?
CHARLES THERIAULT: I was born on August 12, 1923. I was born here in Wolcott, right over by Hitchcock Lake.
SS: Is this where you grew up too?
CT: Yes, in this area I grew up. I got up, oh probably about to sixth grade and then I moved to Southington. I was there in Southington for a long time. My family cut ice here on Hitchcock Lake. And then they built the pond where the Lily Pad Inn is now. My folks built the pond and put up seven ice houses that we used to store the ice in for the summer. We used to sell it during the summer. As a kid, I can remember, six, seven, eight years old, I used to go up there with a big long pole with a hook the end and a hundred eighty pound block of ice would come sliding down the ramp. I used to hook on to this and the chunk of ice would drag me down the ramp to probably the next door of the ice house. Then a man would grab a hold of it and drag me and the cake of ice into the building to store it for the summer. When I moved to Southington, I used to work in all the farms. It was during the depression and I used to work for the Daigel’s in the potato fields. I used to get a penny a bushel, three cents a barrel, to pick potatoes. I used to do it all day long, from early morning to late at night. It was getting dark by the time you’d be finished. You’d be on your hands and knees, most of the time. You’d be surprised the building of character that made.
SS: Especially at such a young age. You were still pretty young.
CT: Oh yes. The child labor thing wasn’t enforced over the depression. I milked cows. When they found out I could drive, then I got a job driving. I used to drive a 1915 Model-T Ford. I used to go work in the orchards. I used to pick the apples, put them in the barrels. We would put the barrels on the Ford and I would drive it up to the barn. The old man that owned it all, he would take the barrels off the truck and store them. Then I’d go back down into the orchard and get some more apples. I would drive the truck all day long.
SS: Is that the old orchard that’s still there? The Southington orchard?
CT: This was right off of Marion Avenue in Southington. It was Mr. Upson’s farm and he had apples. I graduated from the potatoes to the apples. Then Mr. Wilson had a dairy farm. I worked there at the dairy farm milking the cows that he had. He had about eighteen or so. I used to milk eight or ten of them. He would do the rest. I would get a pail of milk, a ten-quart pail of milk, for milking the cows. I would take it on home. That was a supplement to the food because things were tough. Things were tough during the depression. The older people know about it, but the youngsters would never understand what it was like.
SS: Were your parents working at the time?
CT: My mother didn’t but my father had a job and I used to make money. My father would only come home with about twenty bucks or twenty-five bucks for a whole weeks work back then. Today, you laugh, but that’s the way it was. He was lucky to find work. He worked in a factory for a little while. Then we worked on construction. He worked for the WPA. It was a government thing. He was a painter. He did everything to earn money to feed his family. Twenty bucks, twenty-five bucks lasted quite a while because bread was only 5 cents or eight cents a loaf. If you bought yesterday’s bread you could get it for a nickel or four cents. But that’s what we ate. We had a lot of stew because it could stretch to a couple days. All you have to do is add a little water to it.
SS: Did you have a big family?
CT: Oh yes. Oh yes. I have five brothers and two sisters. Fortunately, they’re all alive and we’re all very close. We see each other, and we have picnics. Of course, all the boys are married and all the girls are married and we all have nephews and nieces. It’s a lot of fun. Now that we’re getting older and the children are grown, the picnics are not as big as they used to be because the younger generation has their own things to do and they have their own kids and their own things. And they have things to take care of themselves. All the older guys and girls, we get together and we have a nice picnic.
SS: That sounds really good. Were you still able to go to school while you were working at the same time?
CT: Well, yes. We went to school. In the winter, of course, there wasn’t much to do. You’d shovel somebody’s sidewalk or something like that to earn a buck, but most of the time, you went to school. We didn’t have school buses like they do today so walking a mile or mile and a half or two miles to school was nothing. You were lucky if you could bring lunch. Especially us. We always had chickens so we always had eggs. I got to the point where I couldn’t look at an egg. That’s the way it was.
SS: Do you remember towards the end of the thirties when World War II was starting to go on in Europe?
CT: My father used to talk about it a lot. I’m the oldest; the next brother is Tom My father used to talk to us because we were the older ones. The rest of them were all young and didn’t quite understand it all. My father was working at the factory and he said the factory was getting busy because the United States was starting to build up because they knew that things were going to happen. He would tell us that Scoville’s and American Brass and Chase Brass were starting to build a lot of ammunition. They were making casings for bullets and guns, not the guns so much, but the bullets, all sizes, everything from .30 caliber on up to .155s or .150s or whatever they were called. I don’t remember the exact numbers but Scoville’s and American Brass and Chases, the Waterbury area put out more ammunition than you can possibly imagine.
SS: Was your dad working at one of those places?
CT: My dad worked at Scoville’s. He worked in a place where they put the brass into an acid to clean it. He worked in that department for a long time. As a matter of fact, he had burns on his hands and his arms from the acid that they cleaned the brass with before they started to flatten it out and bend it and mold it and hammer it and do whatever they had to do to make the mold. Of course, there was a lot of machinery involved. There was still a lot of handling of the brass.
SS: Was he involved in World War I at all?
CT: My father? Yes, very much so. He was in the 24th Aerosquadron in World War I. He flew an airplane that took pictures. He never flew a fighter. It was a fighter plane but there were no guns on it because what he did was fly over the enemy trenches and take pictures. The camera was on the floor between his feet. As a matter of fact, there were two cameras and they both took the same picture. When you brought them back and developed them, you put the two pictures on the table beside each other and then they had a glass that they used to put over the top of it. They called it a [stereopticon]. You’d look down through the glass and everything was 3-D. You could see the height of a pole, the height of a building. You know, you could see a mound of dirt and you could see the depth of a trench, the depth of a bomb hole. You could see lots of things. When he came back from World War I, he had a great big cart of pictures and those pictures were amusement for us kids for a lot of kids. We had two glasses, two stereopticon glasses. It’s just two pieces of glass on a wire that stands higher than the pictures. You look in to them and when you’re looking at the two pictures, you can see the depth. We used to go through that box. It was four or five kids looking through the glass. My father would say to us, “Can you see the guns in the picture?” We used to look and look and look trying to find the guns because they were camouflaged pretty well. Then he’d take a pencil and he’d put the point of the pencil where the gun was. Again, all of a sudden, your eyes would get accustomed to it and then after a while, we could find all the guns. We had it for years. 1935, the United States government came to the house and demanded that they have those pictures. How they found out he had them, we have no idea. My father bravely stood there and told them, “No, you cannot have them.” The man said, “We could take them.” I remember my father saying to the man, “Are you going to fight me in front of my kids?” And they backed off really fast. They just said, “No, we wouldn’t dare do that.” Or, “We would never ever do that.” They said, “If we brought someone you know, would you let the pictures go?” He told them, “Absolutely.” So, they brought his commanding officer from World War I, it was a guy by the name of Colonel Wood, now he was a General Wood. He shook hands with my father and they hugged each other. I can remember as a kid standing there watching them. And they took the pictures. When D-Day came and I saw all the pictures of D-Day, from every angle. I said, “I bet you my father’s pictures had a lot to do with it.” Because all of the pictures went. Of course, we never got them back. But the pictures went to Washington and evidently they must’ve really looked through them because that’s evidence.
SS: Yes, that was the cutting edge of airborne surveillance.
SS: That’s when they just first started to do it.
CT: He had pictures. You wouldn’t believe the pictures he had, all kinds of pictures of the French coast and the Ardennes Forest, just all kinds.
SS: Some of the major battlegrounds it sounds like.
CT: Oh sure. It was just amazing that that part, you know, when I see pictures of D-Day, it clicks all the time. I say, “I bet you my father’s pictures are in there.”
SS: Yes, they might’ve used them for some kind of instructional purpose.
CT: Yes, deciding where we’re going to land or what we’re going to do. Because they could see where they had to go, where the roads were, all that stuff that was in there.
SS: Do you think the fact that he was a veteran made him more sensitive to the events that were going on in Europe?
CT: Oh, I would say so. I was in Southington, I was going to Lewis High School on Academy Hill. When the Japs hit Pearl Harbor I said to my father, “I’m going.” He said to me, “Wait until after the first of the year.” So I waited. January came and he kept telling me, “Wait a few more days, wait a few more days.” Sometime around the 10th of January, I went to Hartford and enlisted.
SS: Did you have an interest in flying?
CT: Yes. I wanted to be in the Air Force. I enlisted in Hartford, I got sent to Camp Deven. When I was in Hartford, I said to them, I want to go in the Air Force and the guy told me right off, “You quit your third year of high school. You don’t have enough education to be a pilot.” I said, “Well, I’m a good mechanic.” So he gave me a mechanical test and I was number one out of the mechanical test. I got the highest grade and I got into the Air Force mechanic part of the Air Force. There was a General James Theriault was at the Hartford enlistment center. When he saw the name Theriault, of course, he wanted to know who I was. I told him and he says, “Oh yes, you’re a distant cousin. Come here I want to talk to you.” So he picked up my papers and he went into his office and he said to me, “Go home.” I said, “No, I’m staying. I want to get in this thing.” He tried to talk me out of it, spent twenty-five or thirty minutes trying to tell me to go home. I didn’t want to go home. I told him, “It took me a long time to get here. I had to thumb a ride all the way up here.” So I went back out. I left his office, and I went. I got in the thing and the truck was there to take us to the railroad station and something happened to the truck. The railroad station was only down the street so we all walked down the street. We walked to the railroad station, got on a train, and we went to Camp Deven. When I got to Camp Deven, the guy said, “Where’s you papers?” And I said, “I don’t have any.” So they handed me a whole pile of papers. “Sign here, sign here, sign here.” And they did the same thing as they did back at the enlistment office. Somebody up there took my papers and they started giving us the shots and all this stuff. I was there one day. The next morning I was on a train headed for Atlantic City. All I had with me when I left Devon, they gave me a little folder, and all I had with me was my medical things. I had no enlistment papers, I had nothing other than those medical papers. I get to Atlantic City. I was there from the middle of January, February, March, training, getting basic training. I did a lot of walking and I did a lot of running and I did a lot of rifle business, marching, cleaning the rifle, taking it apart, putting it back together, all kinds of stuff that you have to do in basic training, running five miles with nothing but a full pack and all the balogna that goes with it, running in the rain, running in the snow, just running and running and running. I kept after them, “Where’s my pay?” Everybody would get paid but me. Every payday, they’d get paid. They were getting ready to put us on a train and I said, “Where are we going?” The sergeant was good enough to tell me, “We’re going to North Carolina.” I said, “I’m not going because I never got paid.” The lieutenant said to me, “If you’re not getting paid, you’re not in the Army.” So, I decided I was going home. Because I’d had enough of that stuff. I left everything there. All I took with me was the shoes and the pants and the T-shirt I had and I went down to the railroad station. There was a troop train going to New York City. So I got on the troop train because everybody else was soldiers and I was too, or I looked like one. I got as far as New Jersey. The train stopped in Newark and the MPs got onboard and took me off the train, put me in a truck and took me back to Atlantic City. They gave me back all the stuff I had and they put me on a train and I went to North Carolina, Goldsboro, North Carolina. Now I hadn’t been paid in all this time. Finally, I complained to a colonel down there. Everybody was getting paid in July. I was the last one in the line and I waited to till then end and I said to him, “I’m Charles Theriault and I haven’t been paid since I got in this damn Army from January.” He said, “That’s impossible.” And I said, “Well I haven’t got a paycheck. So I said, I’d just like enough money to go home.” He said, “No, you can’t do that. We’ll straighten this out.” So within a week, they had it all straightened out and the Army, as it is, signed me up right there. So my enlistment started in July and I served seven months without getting paid.
SS: They never gave you any back pay?
CT: I never got any back pay. Then pay day came and I got twenty-one dollars just like everybody else. They never gave me any back pay and I always complained that I took my basic training for nothing.
SS: Did they ever find out what happened?
CT: When General Theriault took my papers in the office, he left them there. He never put them in the pile with the rest of them. That’s how it all happened. I went through mechanic school in Seymour Johnson Field in North Carolina. It was a good place, because I saw airplanes there that you only see once in a lifetime. There was a PB-2A. It was a pursuit ship that was the basic power of the US Army Air Force back from ’35 to ’39 or ’40. Then, there was a P-37. It was like a P-40 but the cockpit was way back at the tail. The pilot sat far back at the tail. They flew it a few times and they realized that the pilot was so far from the center of gravity of the airplane, that when he made a turn, he blacked out. It took him three seconds to gain his consciousness and the plane could’ve gone into the ground in those three seconds. So, it was one of those things. It was on the ground there. It flew a couple of times but that’s where I learned my basic part of the mechanics, because I was going to mechanical school. I took engines apart and put them back together again. The thing was, I’ve seen engines that no one will ever see again. The Continental engine was in the P-37. There was also a Continental engine in the PB-2A and they had a 24 cylinder engine that was built by Allison. They built one, they were going to put it in a PT boat and they found out it was just too heavy because they wanted two side by side. So they went back to the 12 cylinders. This 24 cylinder V-type engine, there was two V’s together put at the bottom. You could slow that thing down to the point that you could just hear it firing. You could hear the thing firing off. Pop pop pop… It kept on going, of course, but if you could count fast enough, you could count twenty-four. Even at low rpm, it was still going faster than you could count. So it was an impossible thing but you could hear it fire all the time. It was amazing to me that on that thing you actually pressed a button and it started. That was something else. We used to take it apart, put it back together again. Take radial engines apart and put them back together again. The B-17, the one they finally ended up with, was a 9 cylinder engine. But I worked on 18 cylinder engines that were in the B-24s and in the B-26s and B-25s. I worked on Pratt-Whitney. I worked on Wright engines. I worked on engines that today nobody remembers. I have seen engines from World War I. I saw a Roan engine that the propeller is tied to the engine and the crank shaft stands still and the engine spins. The propeller goes around. The torque on that thing must’ve been tremendous on those little airplanes. What the pilot must’ve gone through taking off with that rudder pedal right to the wall because the torque on that was tremendous. The thing turned to the right most of the time so he’d have to give it a left rudder to straighten it out. He must’ve had to stand on that left rudder to keep that thing in a straight line because the torque would just take it to the right whether he wanted to go there or not.
SS: All this work on these different engines, was that purposefully to get you ready to work on something like a B-17?
CT: Oh yes. Taking the engine apart and putting it back together again, that’s all part of the training. I could take a cylinder off and replace it because B-17s would fly, if the flak came or the fighter came and knocked off a couple cylinders, at least it would still run. Sometimes it ran rough and it shaked a lot. It shook the airplane like you wouldn’t believe, like a coffee grinder, or whatever you want to call it. But the engine would still run. When you got back, if the engine wasn’t too badly damage, they used to just take the heads off and put new ones on and the thing would start right back up again and run just as good as it did before. The only time you took them off the airplane to change engines was when they got up to two or three hundred hours. Then it was getting old and it had to be replaced. So we’d take it off and send it back to the depot and they would take it all apart, put new rings on it, new valves in it, and put it back together. The engine would come back as a rebuilt and it would be put on a plane. But they could change an engine in just a few hours on a B-17.
SS: How long did you stay at Seymour Johnson?
CT: Let’s see. I was there until…I got there in July, I was out of there late September and I went to gunnery school in Fort Meyers, Florida.
SS: This was still in ’42?
CT: ’42. And I got down there in the wintertime to Fort Meyers, Florida, which was real nice. I spent maybe three months in gunnery school. That’s when I started to fly. I flew in AT-6s. First of all, at gunnery school, you start with a BB gun. Then you went on to a .22, a .22 caliber rifle. Then you went to a .30 caliber rifle and then you went to a .30 caliber machine gun. Everybody fired the gun, you were always shooting at a target. Also, at that time, we were learning to track. We started shooting skeet. You’d go from one station to the other on the skeet range and you had a shot gun. They would shoot clay pigeons out. It’s a round disc, about so big. You probably know what a skeet looks like. You stand at this station and the skeet would come out and go. You didn’t have to lead it too much because the angle wasn’t very much. So you’d almost be right on the target. When you saw the skeet coming out and when it got even with the gun you’d pull the trigger and you’d blast the clay pigeon. When you move to the next station, now the angle is a little bit different and you’ve got to give it a little bit of a lead, not much, but a little because you’re shooting in front of it, so that when you fire, it gets in the way and you hit the clay pigeon. This is bringing it up so when you get into an actual turret, you know that you have to lead the enemy plane so much whatever he’s coming at you.
SS: So at first, did you walk from station to station?
CT: Sure. Yes. It’s a half a moon type of thing. There’s two houses – a low house and a high house and you start out with the low house and you come around to the thing and you come to this end, now the high house. So you’re shooting up, still almost dead on because it’s leading you. Then you start back the other way and you’re working with the high house all the way to the other end. That’s when the lead becomes a lot because the thing is going straight out and you’re at a 90 degree angle to it. So you’ve got to lead the thing. You can’t lead it too much because you’ll miss it but if you lead it right, you can hit it all the time. You got scores – sharpshooter to a marksman. Marksman was first and then sharpshooter was the best. I have both a marksman ticket and I have a sharpshooter’s ticket. I got to be pretty good with a shotgun. But then you started to shoot the .30 caliber machine gun. That gave you quite a kick so that everybody wanted to hold it in their hands and see if they could be a John Wayne. You had to put on a glove, though, because even three shots… They only give you three shots because, you can hold it but I’ll tell you something, the barrel gets so hot that if you had a bare hand you’d burn your hand. It’s got a jacket. You’re not holding the barrel itself, you’re holding the jacket that the barrel is in and you’ll hold it with a glove hand and you pull the trigger. They give you three shells all tied together on a belt. You’d put them in there, you’d hammer it then you’d pull the trigger and it goes, pop pop pop, and that’s all. They make sure you’re out in front of everybody so that you don’t get spun around and shoot something or somebody. Everybody tried it and I’ll tell you something, when you see a movie and the guy’s standing with a .30 caliber and he’s shooting forever, that’s not the way it works because that gun will turn him around every time. Your feet would have to be clamped to the floor because it’s going to push you around.
SS: Were you shooting at one of the turrets that you mentioned?
CT: No, this was just holding it by hand. They had it mounted on a tri-pod. You could shoot at the target as it went off. The target used to go by and you’d shoot at the target. Then you’d go into an airplane and you’re in the airplane and they tow a target by you. One airplane is far ahead of you with a big long cable with a target on it. As the plane goes by, the AT-6 you’re in, as the target comes by, he comes up to the target and you start shooting at the target. Now they paint the tip of the bullets that you have, red, blue, green, yellow or white, and you shoot at the target. If you hit the target, they give you, say, fifty rounds, and then they count how many, my bullets were blue, and you count how many blue holes there are in the target. It’s just like a screen. Actually, that’s just what it is. It’s a piece of screen. Out of the fifty, I got forty-two. I figured that was pretty good. They told me I could do better than that so the next time I went, I had green the next time. Yeah, green I had the second time, blue, green and then I had red ones. With the green ones, I had forty-five hits out of fifty. Finally with the red ones, I hit forty-nine hits out of fifty. So I got my sharpshooter’s medal.
SS: That sounds like a sharp shooter. Forty-nine out of fifty’s pretty good.
CT: But that’s the way it worked. Then, we graduated up to the .50s. The .50 caliber is something else, when I finally got into combat, and I was really shooting at enemy planes, every time I hit that airplane, I could see pieces come off. A .50 caliber machine gun bullet is the most deadly thing. You can’t possibly imagine what a .50 caliber can do. If you were to hit an enemy soldier with a .50 caliber machine gun bullet, you’d destroy him. He is completely gone. When the bullet hits him, it just tears him apart. If you hit him in the arm, you’d take his arm off. If you hit him in the chest, his back would be gone. He dies immediately. There’s nothing that’s going to save you, losing an arm he could survive, but if you hit him bodily, he’s gone. That’s the end of it. It makes a hole the size of your thumb and then when it’s shot out the back, it’s gone. The back is gone. I’ve seen airplanes and I’ve seen the pieces fly off that thing like you wouldn’t believe. I have one mission that I’ll talk about later, that I saw the pieces coming off that plane and I couldn’t believe that it was still going. Then it ended. Believe me when I tell you, it ended.
SS: How long did you work on training with that?
CT: The gunnery training took us three months or a little bit more than three months, because at the same time, we were learning Morse code. I have forgotten most of it now in the fifty some years that has gone by, but I forgot most of it. But I can still remember how to SOS in my head. We were learning radio at the same time. Then I got shipped from there I went to Will Rogers Field, Oklahoma. That’s when I really started to go to work. My first airplane, I was a crew chief on a B-25, and that was the real rush for me. I had my airplane, and I was a B-25 crew chief. It takes a lot of time. You’ve got to check it all the time. You’ve got to keep on it. You have to look at it. You can’t leave anything to memory. You had a big check sheet and at twenty-five hours you do this, fifty hours you do this and a hundred hours you do this. You have to jack it up. You have to pull the wheels. You have to take the plates off of it, look and see the gas tanks. You have to make sure that nothing is leaking. You have to check every line and every wire, every control cable. You have to check the cables. You have to go along with your hand, without a glove, and if the wires are starting to fray and you cut yourself, you know that that cable has got to be changed so you take it out. But you can’t go with a glove because you might miss it. So you have to go with your bare hands. Believe me, I’ve cut my hands a hundred and fifty thousand times checking cables. It’s things you had to do.
SS: Was there a flight crew assigned to the plane too?
CT: Oh yes, definitely, definitely. The people that were flying it, they were new pilots learning to fly. There was a flight engineer that went with them all the time. I was the crew chief so I stayed on the ground. I was on that B-25 for three months, almost four months, then I was transferred over to A-20s. With those, I used to fly a lot. I flew on the 25s a few times, but not that often. I shipped over to A-20s and I had a ship of my own. The squadron that I got into, they named all of their airplanes after Kentucky racehorses that won, the winners of the Kentucky Derby, that’s how they named all their planes. They called the squadron the Flying Stud. They had a big white horse with wings on the nose of every airplane. My airplane was Black Gold and he won the race back in 1922 or ‘3, or something like that, a long time back. It was an A-20G. It was a beautiful airplane. It didn’t have a bombardier in the front like most of the A-20s. This was a G. It had eight .50 caliber machine guns in the nose where the bombardier used to be. The pilot that I had, his name was Dahl. He was from Minnesota. He was training on that airplane and he was supposed to take that plane to North Africa. I would work on the plane and get it all ready and I’d have it idling. He’d come out and climb aboard and take-off and go. There was room for a gunner in the back and I used to keep asking, “When do I get to take a ride?” “When I get all my time in, then you can ride,” he’d say. The day before his time was coming that I could take a ride, he took off and he was in the formation. They went somewhere and did some gunnery practice. On the way back, they came over the field in formation, the way they always do, after they passed the airfield, they started to peel off to come around to make their landing. He peeled off and the thing went too far and he flipped over on his back and he went down and he crashed. There was a big explosion and a big ball of black smoke and then it ended. We couldn’t figure out why you didn’t see the smoke keep coming up. He crashed in a pond. It was a small pond and he’d buried that thing in the pond. All the planes landed. I felt really bad that it did that. Fortunately, the commanding officer was out there watching them come in. He wanted to see me right away, so I went to see him. He said, “I brought you in here because I don’t want you to think you were responsible for him. He made the mistake, not you.” He said, “The plane didn’t die or quit or anything, the engine was running when it hit the water.” He said, “Would you like to be transferred?” Well, I said, “I was leaning toward going to B-17s” and he said, “I’ll make sure that you get there.” The next day, I was on a train out of Will Rogers Field. I was going to a place, Ephrata, Washington and I got on B-17s in Ephrata, Washington. The day I arrived at Ephrata, Washington, they shut everything down. The airfield was closed and I couldn’t figure out why. I said to the guys that were there, “Did I cause this?” Because I really felt that in their eyes that I’d lost a pilot. But like the commander told me, it was not my fault. So when they got to Ephrata, what happened was, the day before I got there, the airfield was in a hole. It had mountains to go over to land and mountains to go over to take off. Why they ever put that airfield there, I’ll never understand. It was in the middle of the desert in Washington state. It was east of a place called Wenatchee, Washington where they raise a lot of apples. It’s right near the Columbia River but it’s highland. It’s up high. There’s mountains three quarters of the way around. There’s only one way in, and it wasn’t a runway facing that way. The runways were here and there was a mountain here and a mountain there. And for the planes, they had red lights on the mountains. (end of side one)
SS: So you were talking about the mountains with the red lights on them and the planes coming in over the ridge…
CT: Ephrata was in this valley, or in this hole, and we did do some flying out of there after they kind of wanted to keep the training program going. So we did do some flying out of there but it was a very treacherous place to get in and out of. It wasn’t a very good place for a military base. We lived in a small wooden hut. There were six guys in a wooden hut. There were three double bunks, which makes six guys. The thing was cold up there. They had a stove in the middle of the hut and one bare bulb hanging from a cable, or a light thing. The stove was in a wooden box full of rocks so that the thing didn’t catch on fire. In the morning, when you went to get up, you had to bring your rifle to bed with you because when you woke up in the morning, there might be a rattlesnake wrapped up around the bottom of the stove to keep warm. You would have to shoot the snake in order to get out of the bunk. They also had Black Widow spiders, lots of spiders. We had to be careful at night. We all had a string to the light. If you felt something on you, you’d carefully light the light and check yourself to make sure there were no spiders. I grew to hate that place. [pause for equipment problem]
SS: I think where I left off, you just explained about the rattlesnakes and all the difficulty you had with black widow spiders and things of that nature. Then it might’ve skipped some. You were talking about how you bought the Ford and were transferred to Oklahoma.
CT: Yes, we were transferred to Ardmore, Oklahoma and I drove down in this ’35 Ford with two GI’s that were friends of mine. Every time we went down a big hill or something, you’d have to stop before we started down the hill, and adjust the brakes. We’d get out and get under the Ford with this wrench and adjust all the brakes, because there were mechanical brakes on those things. We made the trip and we wound up in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and when I got to Ardmore, I had such good record that I became an instructor for engineers. I spent a whole year instructing engineers. We used to do it day and night it didn’t make any difference. Time didn’t mean anything. I would do two or three trips a day. I did a lot of flying, a lot of flying.
SS: That was flight engineers?
CT: That was flight engineer. The pilot and the co-pilot would be training and the bombardier and the navigator would be training and the flight engineer, and I used to take two or three of them with me all the time. They’d take trips out, maybe fifty or a hundred miles for the navigators. The bombardiers would be working all the time training on all this stuff. I used to show the engineers what they had to do. I’d have them stand between the pilot and the co-pilot on take-off. The pilot would give him orders so that he would understand, like, “Bring up the gear.” So that he’d know, he’d learn…Of course he knew where they all were, but he had to learn when the pilot said to him, “Give me one third flaps.” Why, he’d know where the switch was in case he had to do it. Most of the time, the co-pilot did it. Some pilots wanted the co-pilot ready to take it over if something happened to him or if suddenly the plane started to go somewhere like off the runway, and they needed manpower to bring it back, because it was all cable. There was no hydraulics to help. It was strictly cable. You couldn’t use the automatic pilot for any of that stuff because that’s too technical, taking off wind shifts, and all this stuff happens quick. You’ve got to be there. A gust of wind makes a lot of difference in the handling of it. So the flight engineer has to be there and he’s got know what all the control handles are and how to use them. If he reached up and touched the wrong switch, he could cut all the engines. So he had to know, if something were wrong, he’d have to see it right away. Like if the rpm in one engine was down, or a prop ran away, he had to know which handle to touch to bring it back up again. There was a lot to being an engineer if you wanted to be a good one. If you were just going for the ride, then, that’s something else. No student of mine ever had the idea that he could just go along for the ride. Everything was very technical, as far as I was concerned, and he had to know what he was doing.
SS: This was on a B-17 now?
CT: These are on B-17s now. Because when I got my own crew, that was something else. It was strictly business. Being a flight engineer is strictly business. You’ve just got to know because sometimes, on take-offs especially, and on landings, that’s the critical part of flying. An airplane gets aloft and goes and you could fly it. I could fly it. But landing and take-offs are something else again. You’ve got to be a pilot in order to understand what I’m saying but you’ve got to be there and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. I trained guys for the better part of a year. I even made a model of the cockpit instrument panel. I got two seats from a wrecked airplane, I put the seats there with all the control panels and all the dial indicators and I set up an engineer along side of me and I would show him just exactly what to do sitting right there on the ground. I used to do a lot of them. I used to do these things at night after chow. I’d say: “Come on down and I’ll show you what you’re going to have to do.” And he’d come down and we’d sit there until 10:30, 11:00 at night and I’d show him what he had to know and what he had to do. Then, when I got him airborne and we were up in the air, he would know what everything is. Where the flap switch was. Where this was. Where that is. On a B-17, you can lock the tail wheel and you can lock the rear elevators by pulling the lever. You had to know that that lever had to be down, disengaged when the plane was starting to taxi. That had to be down so that you didn’t run into another airplane because he couldn’t turn it. I spent a lot of time there.
SS: Were there a lot of accidents in that period? You were there for a whole year. Because everybody was training, pilots, navigators…
CT: Oh yes. We had a few planes come in, and the gear collapsed. They hit hard, they landed hard on one wheel. Like I said, gusts of wind raised the wing up and the plane coming down hit the ground on one wheel. You’d break the wheel right off and the plane hits the ground and spins around. Some of them, they were lucky that they could just stop. Others, as soon as the wheel broke, as soon as it started to nose over, or something like that, the thing would catch fire and have all kinds of troubles. We’ve had a lot of that stuff. As a matter of fact, in February of 1943, we went out and the weather closed in real fast. By the time we were a mile from Ardmore, you couldn’t see your hand in front of you. The pilot I had was new. It was supposed to be a nice night and then we found out that the weatherman gave us the wrong information. He read us yesterday’s thing. We went up to Tinker Field. By the time we got up there, it was closed. The weather was so bad you couldn’t see anything. This pilot, every time he made a turn, he would lose two or thee hundred feet of altitude. I kept telling him, “You’ve got to keep it up there. You’ve got to stay at least 1,000 feet.” He was down to five hundred feet. I kept telling him, “Every time you make turn, lieutenant, you’re losing two or three hundred feet of altitude.” Finally, he got angry at me and he said to me, “I’m flying this thing. You stay back there. You’re the engineer.” I said, “Ok.” So he made a turn. I saw the runway. I could see the concrete on the runway and I said, “Oh, good Lord.” He just missed it. He leveled it out and he started to climb again. We were heading south. We went past the airport. He was trying to find a radio beam was what he was trying to do so he could come back. He went down, south of Tinker Field and Arbuckle Mountains are down there and he made the turn and he lost two, three hundred feet of altitude and I felt the wing hit the ground and I just stood in back of him because there was an armor plating there in back of his seat. I saw them go like this. The co-pilot grabbed the wheel and they turned the wheel. The plane leveled out and it hit the top of the mountain and it went down the other side and landed in a cornfield. It tore the engine off. The tail broke off. The plane buried itself in the earth. The tail came around and ran over the left wing. The plane was so buried in the ground that the co-pilot slid his window out and we just crawled out the window and the ground was right there. I ran away from it and I had a kid that was flying with me. There were three in the back, there. I didn’t see them. Of course, it was foggy and it was night. Well, it was four something in the morning. I ran back to the airplane, crawled in the window and I went back through the airplane and went through into the bomb bay, and when I opened the door to the bomb bay and I went in, all I could see was the night. But I could see the stars. The stars had started to come out. I went to go back, because they weren’t there. I went back to go through the bomb bay. I went to get the door open. The door was jammed, and I couldn’t get the door open. Now the thing is burning and it’s burning pretty good. My pants were on fire and my feet were burning. I could feel the heat through the shoes. And my pants were burning and I decided that I had to get through that door. So I hit the door, which is not very big, and it was ¾ inch plywood door, probably about 18 inches across and probably three feet high. I hit the door with my shoulder as hard as I could. The door broke, the hinges broke off, actually. The door went down under the turret, the base of the turret, and I went into the cockpit and I climbed out the window. My pants were on fire. I rolled around on the ground and my pants went out. I ran and I ran into a barbed wire fence. The pilot and the co-pilot and the kid that was with me, was in the radio room. But when the thing broke apart, he was alright. When the plane stopped, he just jumped out and ran. The other two guys were found further up the hill. They didn’t stay in the radio room. They were in the waist of the plane and when it broke in half they just got thrown, and they died. My legs were burned pretty good. I was black and blue from my shoulder, up my neck and the side of my head, from hitting the door. That hurt. I was in the hospital for a couple of days and then they let me out. I went back to flying. I was flying again in less than a week. I loved to fly.
SS: Even after all that? Having some people you knew die and almost dying yourself, really?
CT: Yes, I got trapped in there. But I got out. Like I say, it wasn’t my time. So I survived. Then I started looking for a crew. I wanted to get off the training part because I kept thinking that it was getting hairy. I decided that I didn’t want to be an instructor anymore. So, Captain Miles got married, or had been married. His wife was pregnant and he asked for leave. He went back to Florida to see his wife on a leave and while he was gone, his crew got spinal meningitis and they were all quarantined in a hanger. When he got back, his crew was all in the hanger and he couldn’t have his crew. So he started looking for another crew because meningitis was four weeks or six weeks of isolation. Anyway, he was looking for a crew. I had my name on the board that I was looking for a crew. He saw my name, he came and looked me up and he said he was looking for a crew. He said to me, “Can you find some guys? I need a ball turret gunner, I need a tail gunner.” I said, “I’ll find them.” Well, I went out. The ball turret gunner was kicked off a crew because they couldn’t get along. The tail gunner got kicked off the crew because he didn’t like the crew. The crew, he said, “They’ll never survive because they don’t know what they’re doing.” And he didn’t want that. So he got off. So I picked up a ball turret gunner and a tail gunner right away. The radioman that I needed, he got into a fight somewhere. He was a beer drinker. He was from Boston and he was a good radioman. But he got into a fight with somebody and the crew didn’t want him anymore because he was a troublemaker, they said. They didn’t want him. The waist gunner, he went home, his mother died or his father died and he went home. When he got back, the crew had picked up somebody else and they didn’t need him. So, instead of taking him back, they kicked him off. Most crews were ten. Mine was nine. The waist gunner said, “I can handle both guns.” So the pilot said to him, “Ok.” So that’s how I got my crew. That’s how the crew came together. It was kind of like they just kind of came together. Why? I don’t know. Personalities were different, completely different. The radioman and the tail gunner got along great. One was a gambler and really a gambler. His father owned a gambling house in New Orleans on Bourbon Street or someplace down there. It since became a restaurant that was well known, Duhan’s Restaurant, after the war. I never could find him. I looked and looked after the war and I checked everything I could check and I couldn’t find him. But we jelled. We got together. We trained together for maybe three weeks and then they shipped us to Lincoln, Nebraska. We picked up a brand new B-17, and we flew to England.
SS: So you guys had gotten orders together to go overseas?
CT: We got orders. The crew got orders to go overseas. Lincoln, Nebraska, they took pictures of us. We never got any of them. They were for the Army. The Air Force wanted the pictures, so pictures they got. They gave us an airplane. We flew to Bangor, Maine and we stayed over in Bangor, Maine. I forgot the name of the field but we were there. Then, from there, we went to Goose Bay, Labrador. Goose Bay was an experience like you never saw. The snow was forty feet deep. This is in October, November, it was winter up there. You came in and you went down in the snow. There’s snow on both sides. You’re down in the snow. You’re down to the concrete. You land on the runway, you taxi down and a truck comes. It’s got a big sign on the back, Follow Me. You go and you follow the truck. He goes to the end of the runway, around, and you’re in the snow. The snow is way up there. You’re taxiing around and you come up and they put you in front of a hanger. Now the hanger, you can see the front of the hanger and the snow is piled up on top of the hanger. This was part of my job. I had to put twenty gallons of hundred octane gasoline in the oil, for the engines. So that when the morning comes, I could kick it over and the oil would be thin and then when it gets hot, the gasoline vaporized and was gone. Anyway, I had to do that. The truck came and took the crew. You get in the truck and you start climbing a hill. What they do is, they spray it with water and then they throw sand on it. Then you’re on an ice road. The ice is two or three feet thick. The truck rides on the ice. First thing you know, you’re up on top of the snow and you come to a place where he stops. There’s a door over there. Just a door and he says, “That’s your barracks there. So, you walk in and you go down a flight of stairs to the third floor of a three story barracks. You walk in and the guy’s sitting at a desk, “Here’s your bunk number.” They give you a bunk number. You go down a flight of stairs, you’re on the second floor, you go down a flight of stairs, you’re on the first floor. You go to the window and you look. There was about one foot of space between the window and the wall of snow. Because the warmth keeps the snow away. The next day, you go out and you go to mess hall. You go up the stairs, you go out and the truck takes you. You’d go down the stairs and you’d go to the mess hall. You’ll see a pine tree and there’s big signs: Don’t go near the trees. Because if you walk over to where the pine tree is, the pine tree has got branches and the snow was in there. You could fall all the way down to the bottom, through the branches of the pine tree. We were only there a couple of days. The weather was clear so they said, “Get out of here because if it closes in, you’re dead.” So we cranked up the airplane, they filled it up with fuel and we cranked it up. When it got all warmed up, they shut it down, they filled it up with fuel again, topped it off and then we started to take off. You’re actually flying, the plane comes up, I hit the switch, the wheels came up and I jacked the flaps up and the plane was flying, actually flying before it came out of the snow. Forty feet, fifty feet, and then you could see the top of the snow. You could see the top of the snow. We went to Iceland and that place is just, the south end of Iceland, is just a big flat rock. The runway was made right in the rock. You landed on this thing. When the plane behind us landed, no other planes could get in because it got so foggy you couldn’t see the hand in front of you. By the time we parked the plane, you couldn’t see the next plane. The next morning, it was foggy. We were there three days. We wasted three days sitting there. Then on the fourth day, we got up in the morning and they said, “Go, go, because it’s going to close in.” So even without breakfast, we just took off. We went to Burtonwood, Scotland. From there we went to Prestwick. They took the airplane away from us in Prestwick, they put us on a train, and we went to a place called Attellborough in England. Then they took us on a truck to Deopham Green. The new crews do not get a new airplane. The new crew gets the junk that they’ve got. We started flying. We flew four or five days on practice missions, flying formation, close formation, and I mean close. The 452nd Bomb Group had a record of flying close formation, really close. I saw a couple of airplanes with smashed navigation lights. Of course, you don’t use them. The navigation lights are not used. But you’d go out to the end of a wing and you’d see how it was flattened out, you knew that it had hit another airplane. Because they used to fly close. They were noted for their close formations and when Colonel Batson got up there and said, “I want a nice tight formation”, he wasn’t kidding when he said it, because our group was known for tight formations.
SS: What timeframe was that? Do you remember the month and the year?
CT: This was the end of ’44. I got there in November, Thanksgiving. The next thing, we were on the train, we got to Deopham Green, and that was in December, 1944. Then we flew our first mission the day before Christmas. It was four hours and forty minutes long. It wasn’t very long. We only went to some place like Frankfurt, that was real close. We went over there and we didn’t see any fighters. We saw a lot of flak but we didn’t see any fighters. That was our baptism. The flak was good, I should say close. They were really shooting good. A couple of planes got hit but nothing serious. One plane aborted on the way over and one plane got hit bad enough that he had to turn around before he got to the target. He dumped the bombs in the Channel.
SS: What bomb group and squadron was this again?
CT: I was in the 452nd bomb group and I was in the 729th squadron. Of course, at the beginning, we were the “Tailend Charlie,” we were in the back. As time goes by, as the missions come up, you move around. My pilot was a second lieutenant when he went to pilot training and when he graduated he got another grade, so now he was a first lieutenant. But he was strictly an Army man. He was an Army – Air Force man. The military was his career. He was going to be in there forever. He was strict about everything. The pilot was serious, I don’t know how many people ever worked for someone like that, everybody was committed. Everybody in the business or everybody that’s working for them is committed to that job. If you’re not committed to the job, go home. We don’t want you. That’s the way he was. He wanted me to work on the engine and work on the plane that we flew in. He didn’t want anybody else telling him, we did this or we did that. He would look at me and he’d say, “Did we do this?” And I’d say, “Yes sir. We sure did.” If it needed an engine change, “Did you change the engine?” “Yes sir, we changed the engine.” Because I was there, I saw it. I was helping. I was putting the bolts in, cranking them up tight. Putting the safety wires on them. They was a hexhead bolt. You drive it in as far as you can and you tighten it up pounds per square inch. There’s a hole through the head of the thing. You put a wire through it and you twist the wire that goes through the next bolt that’s on that thing. So that that thing can’t unwind. It can’t get loose and back out. You put wire through it and then when you get through with three or four or five together, you’d tie the wire off so none of those bolts, those five bolts, will not move. Because it’s got a wire pulling it all the time to the tight side. This was all part of being the mechanic on a B-17. If there were any holes in it, you had to make sure that they were all taken care of, pound it out. I don’t care where it was, if you had to take half of the airplane apart to get at the hole, you had to put something solid against it so that you could flatten it and then you put a patch over it with a couple of rivets in it. The planes that weren’t ours, I used to go down and work with the guy whose plane it was. I was always down there doing something.
SS: So did you guys wind up getting along well then, on the crew?
CT: As a crew? Yes. The waist gunner was our armament man. When the truck arrived with the bombs, he had to be there. When they put them in, he had to be there. When they took the caps off and put the fuses in, he had to be there. When the armament people put the fuse in, he had to make sure that that was tight. He had to be there. You put one in the front and you put one in the back and then you put a wire through it so the propeller won’t spin and come off. So he was the one to put the wire through. The wire was long. The wire was so long and he’d anchor it to the side of the plane or to the bomb racks. So that when the bomb fell out, the wire would pull out of the propeller and then the propeller would start to unwind. They fell at a rate of about close to seventy miles an hour. The propeller spins and spins and spins and then it flies off and the thing is armed. The back ones were the same. The back one’s got a propeller on it and it flies off and now it’s armed. So when the bomb hits, this one goes and this one goes and the bomb explodes. Everybody had to do their job. Everybody had to do their job. The ball turret had to make sure his turret was operating. He had to make sure the motors were ok. He had to load the thing. He had to put all the ammunition in it. He’s the only one that couldn’t have more than two hundred and eighty rounds of ammunition. Everybody got two hundred and eighty rounds. Everybody used to try and sneak on another fifty or another hundred rounds of ammunition. It was part of my job, too, to make sure that the airplane was balanced. The center of gravity had to be where it belonged. I used to stand there in the morning after everything was coming and I would stand there with a slide rule and I used to make darn sure that four hundred pounds in the front, I got four hundred pounds in the back. I had to make sure that all the gasoline was in there and the bombs were in there and the plane stayed level. That the center, that you could pick it up by the center and make sure that everything was level. There was a mark on the plane that you knew that this mark was center. If you could put a screw in there with an eye bolt on it and you could pick it up, the plane would be straight and level. Because I it flies tail heavy or nose heavy, it takes a lot of work and you lose gasoline because the plane is working hard to make it go. You say engineer, it sounds easy. But there’s so many things that you had to do, that you had to know about that it was amazing.
SS: It sounds amazing that everything was able to come together and it worked and worked well.
CT: Oh yes, yes. I have some pictures of the main runway; there was no obstacles on the main runway. It ran practically east and west. There was nothing, no hills, no nothing. The alternate runway, which was the second longest, was a little over four thousand feet. There was nothing on one end, on the south end of it, but there was a house on the north end of it. The house was, like, maybe two hundred feet past the end of the runway. Mr. Haylock owned that house, that farm. The house had a tree in back of it, and when we took off on that particular runway… the runways, of course, are not flat. They were potato fields. They went like this. The plane went up and down, up and down, and then up. When the plane went down in the last hole and we started coming up, when the plane lifted up on the struts, the pilot would say, “Now!” and I’d hit the gear switch and, the gears would come up. Now the plane had to fly because there’s no wheels anymore. The flaps are down but the plane, it would be so loaded with six one thousand pound bombs, “three tons,” and the fuel and the oil and everything that’s in it, extra ammunition that they snuck on board, and all that stuff, the plane would actually slide around on the air to get going. Then I used to, once I got the wheels up, I used to start hitting the flap switch, slowly bringing the flap switch up. As soon as I did that, I could see the airspeed start to climb, as soon as the flaps started to come up. We used to clear Mr. Haylock’s house and the tree right in the back of his house, we used to blow the thatch off the roof and the tree would bend in the breeze of the top wash. I’m not kidding when I tell you this, we used to tell that old man, “Don’t stand in the doorway of your house when we’re taking off.” We used to go see him a lot. We used to get eggs from him. We used to go buy eggs from the guy. But his family wasn’t there. The English hierarchy said, “No families on the airfield.” They would move them off the airfield. They weren’t far away. They were in an area that was safe. It was amazing that everything, like you say, everything clicked.
SS: By that time of the war, the 8th Air Force was flying pretty huge formations. How big were your guys formations on your missions?
CT: If you could get fifty planes together, you were doing good. Most of the time, you never came close to that, unless they had a maximum of effort. Like the day they went to Berlin on February 3rd. They went to Berlin on a maximum effort. There was over a thousand airplanes.
SS: Were you guys a part of it?
CT: A thousand. I was part of it. I looked back and I saw groups and groups and groups and groups and groups and groups. It almost looked like a phony shot from a camera. That’s how far back they went. I looked at it and to myself I said, “That can’t be real.” But they were back there. I was like ten or twelve back from the front, from the lead group. I looked ahead and I couldn’t see the lead, he was so far ahead of me. Of course, I couldn’t see the last because they were back. But the ones that I could see back, they looked phony. It looked like it was something that the motion industry would put up, a back drop. It was real. It was a thousand planes.
SS: What did it feel like to go on a mission like that? To face that flak and the fighter pilots?
CT: It was scary. There’s no question about it. I never saw anybody quit. I never heard anybody say, “I’m quitting.” You’d go on a mission and you’d say, “I hope they don’t jump us today.” And you’d keep thinking in your mind, “I hope they don’t jump us today.” You’d go on a mission, sometimes you’d see a lot of flak, sometimes you’d see a few fighters, but they wouldn’t come. Because the P-51s would come and chase them off. My time, I was pretty safe. But the guys that went ahead of me, the guys that started flying back in ’43 and ’44, through ’44, those are the guys that earned it. Whatever they can get, they earned it. When I say, they fought the German Luftwaffe. They were the ones who were taking the beatings. A raid of a hundred planes went to Schweinfurt, sixty of them got shot down, over sixty percent. They went to Schweinfurt and Regensburg was another one.
CT: Yes, Poleski was another one. There were two Schweinfurt raids. Stuttgart was another one that was a murderous place to go. Regensburg was bad. Believe me when I tell you. There were a few others, like Hamburg, at the beginning was a tough place to go. Hannover was another one that was a tough place to go. My 24th mission was the worst one that I ever went on. I had others that weren’t so nice but this one; this one was the worst. This I’ll give to you. This mission was April 7th. It was our 24th mission. We were going to a place called Kaltenkirchen. We were flying in what they called the deputy lead. Now each squadron has, whatever planes they put up, they put them in elements. Three to an element. There’s the lead plane, there’s one stacked here on the left and there’s one stacked here on the right. The left B17 is high and the right B17 is low. They do that purposefully so that the gunners were shooting, they don’t hit the plane that’s next to you. This one’s down low, they shoot over his head. This one’s up high, they shoot underneath. So, whichever way the enemy comes, you’ve got a clear shot at him. Ok? Now, our plane, our plane, Scrappy Jr. was down for an engine change. They had pulled the engine off that night and the other engine hadn’t arrived. So the plane was down for engine change. We were given another airplane that we had flown before. The last three numbers were 713. It was a good airplane. The mission, normally we fly anywhere from 25,000 to 32 or 33,000 feet. This mission was going to be at 18,000 feet. Now you could see the ground on this mission. You could actually see the ground. Downstairs I have a navigator’s chart of the mission. I just got it. My 452nd bomb group made it available and I got one. I also have, from the 452nd a map of Deopham Green. I have all the stuff with it, that goes with it. We went on this mission. There were a lot of groups involved because they were pulling what they called a multi-target mission. Some planes were going to go this way, some planes were going to go that way, some planes were going to go this way. Depending on the group you were in, you had a designated target. We had a designated target and so did he. Our target was Kaltenkirchen. (Pulls out a map) This is where we were going. This is my group up here, to Kaltenkirchen. See? This is the navigator’s notes. As we got close to the target, we got to a place that they called the “turning point”. When you get to this point, you turn. Now you’re heading toward the target. You didn’t get to the I.D. yet. (end of tape)
SS: You wee talking about the turning point and the target I.D.
CT: We made our turn at Steimrudder-Meer and started to the next turning point. At that time, we got attacked. We knew that there were fighters in the area. We had already been warned. So we got attacked by 65 or 75 enemy aircraft, made up of ME109s, FW190s, and some ME262s jets. All of a sudden, the waist gunner and tail gunner called out, “Enemy fighters!” They started coming. One 109 started in. He started coming in at us at 7:00 high. Now that would be on the left side high toward the back. He started coming down. He was shooting. You could see the guns flashing. But he wasn’t shooting at us but we were shooting at him. The waist gunner and then the tail gunner were shooting at him. You could see the pieces coming off. He went around the tail and he slammed into the plane on my right side. Now he hit the plane, he hit the B-17 right in back of the waist window and he went all the way up to the radio room, hit the wing and then fell off. Now the B-17 was sliced like you would go with a can opener. The plane flew on for a short distance and then it started to twist. It came apart. The tail end came off, and it went one way and the nose of it just went straight down. I saw the waist gunner get thrown out. Whether he was lucky enough to have a parachute on, I don’t know. They went down. I’m moving. I couldn’t see him anymore. As a matter of fact, you couldn’t see anything of the plane going down. I kept turning the turret around and around and the tail gunner said, “One’s coming up from 5:00 low.” Now he started down here and he was coming up. He appeared on my left side and he rammed the B-17 that was on my left, on the high side. The plane was up. I could see the bottom. He went right into the bomb bay. The B-17 buckled in the middle and then started down, the two of them together. When they got past my eyesight, my view, I couldn’t see them anymore so I don’t know whatever happened to them, because I could not see them. I was still turning my turret all around, checking everything for where they were coming from next. The next one came in from 1:00 high. I saw him coming. I could see him shooting but there was nothing hitting my airplane. But I was shooting at him. I was giving him a burst and giving him a burst. I could see the pieces flying off of that thing. Then all of a sudden, he was heading for me. He was going to ram that lead B-17. He was out there eight hundred, nine hundred yards and it blew up. It absolutely exploded into hundreds and hundreds of pieces. I saw the engine go. Then I saw the wings flipping down. Then all of a sudden, this is all happening in seconds now. It happens a lot quicker than I can tell you. I saw the pilot coming. As I was going along in the B17 in my turret, swinging around, he came by. He just missed my number 3 engine, went over the wing and was gone. In that few seconds, he was like sitting in a lounge chair with his knees up, laying kind of on his back. He looked at me and I looked at him and I could see him so close that I could see he had blond hair and blue eyes and he was kind of like this. He looked at me and I looked at him and he was gone. And he didn’t have a parachute. Now this all happened so fast and so quick that it’s hard to explain. The two missing aircraft were replaced by others that quickly got into there, that’s their job. This guy just put the throttle on and he got up here and that guy put the throttle on and he got up here. Now they just filled up that formation. Everybody moved to bring up the formation. Now we were close. I’ll tell you, we were close. We went on, there were more fighters. I fired at a few, this one and that one. Got to the turning point for going onto the target now. Turned on to the target, I heard the pilot say to the bombardier, “You’ve got it.” The bombardier’s name was Rothenburg. He took the plane over the target, dropped the bombs and then we started coming for home. We saw a few more fighters but the P-51s were coming then and the fighters kind of disappeared. We got back to our base, and we were interrogated. We were telling them how they got rammed. They didn’t say very much and then I said to the guy, “They must be getting new pilots. They were only kids.” We thought, right away, inexperience was the reason for the ramming. For fifty some years, it’s been like a secret. Nobody ever said any different. Now we find out, fifty years later, we find out that it wasn’t inexperience. The German Luftwaffe, Mr. Herman Goering there, he decided that they would take up the same tactic that the Japanese were doing with Kamikaze. So they put out a paper. They were looking for volunteers to ram American bombers. They got three hundred volunteers on the first day that the notice went out that they were looking for volunteers. These kids were anything from fourteen to sixteen years old. They trained them in gliders, they showed them how to operate an ME-109, and they got as many ME-109s as they could. They put a few bullets in it, half a tank of gas, and they sent them out to ram the bombers. Now, they only did it once. Then, the other members of the Luftwaffe decided that that wasn’t the way to go and they never came again. Those kids that were in that thing, they just dissolved the whole unit. I forgot the number of the unit but there’s a book out. There’s a book out, Weir wrote a book, The Last Flight of the Luftwaffe. Now I went up to the library and I read it. He has a lot of good stuff in there. The book is fairly decent. There’s things in it, or things he missed. He didn’t write that good a book, as far as I’m concerned. It was Ok, but he left out a lot. In that book, it tells how the Luftwaffe decided that they were going to go with this suicide thing. They had, of course, in German, Ramangagen, I think it was called.
SS: This was April, ’45, so yes, that was towards the end of the war, near VE-Day, actually.
CT: Oh yeah, that was a long time after D-Day.
SS: I’m sorry, VE-Day.
CT: Yes. The Germans quit fighting. I forgot now. The Japs ended in August and the Germans quit some time in late May or into June, I think it was. Sometime in there. I forgot the exact date. But that’s the way it was.
SS: So this was your 24th mission. Was there any missions after that?
CT: Oh yes. I went thirty-two.
SS: You went thirty-two? Was that the number required?
CT: Yes. Well, thirty was the end.
SS: Oh, thirty was the end. Ok.
CT: Because my crew, when thirty came, they went home. I decided to stay. I flew two more missions. The first mission I flew, the crew didn’t get along. The crew was not jelled. They weren’t together. They argued a lot. “You’re doing this. You’re doing that. You’re not doing this.” Then the second mission I flew, the pilot and co-pilot argued all the time. When I got my feet on the ground, I said, “That’s the end of that.” Their engineer had got the mumps or the measles or some other damn thing. I took his place. I stood behind them and I was going to help them. He told me to mind my own business. I said, “Whoa, whoa there.”
SS: What made you ever want to fly extra missions?
CT: I don’t know. I was there and I was waiting to be transferred to B-29s. I had already put in to be transferred to 29s. I was waiting to go home, you know, so I could get into the 29s. But after that second time…I had flown some missions with my crew to Holland and dropped food. I didn’t go on any missions to pick up the prisoners but my group picked up a lot of prisoners, over 4,000. They dropped fifteen tons of food to the Hollanders. That was a kick. I went twice on those missions. They did five missions, I think, and I did two of those or three, I’ve forgotten now. Anyway, you’d fly in, they had the ten in one rations. It’s a big box. Did you ever see one? Do you know what they are?
CT: Ok. They’re about maybe thirty inches long, maybe ten inches high. They called it ten in one. It would last one man ten days or it would last ten men one day. There was all sorts of stuff in there, cookies, crackers, sewing kit, fish hooks. Everything you could catch fish with or whatever. It depends on where the box was going. There was cans of jelly, cans of hot dogs, cans of Spam. All kinds of stuff that you could eat without a fire, that would give you the energy. Blocks of chocolate, a block of chocolate looked like a brick, about half a brick and there was two or three of them in there. What you had to do was, you had to put it on a rock, take your knife, and then put it into the thing and hit it with a rock and break it. Then turn it over and hit it again and make small pieces that you could put in your mouth and let them melt.
SS: You were dropping those to the people of Holland, right?
CT: Holland, yes. What they did was, they built a rack in the bomb bay. It had a regular latch like you’d have on a door. It had a string tied to it. Then the doors would open. We were down low. We were treetop level. I was just standing in the doorway of the bomb bay. I sat right there on the base of the turret and I had the two strings. When we came in over the soccer field or the race track or somebody’s farm, or whatever, as long as there was a big lot, the bombardier would say, “Now!” And I’d just pull the two strings and the doors would open and all of this food would fall out. The boxes would hit the ground and tumble and roll. If they hit anything, they’d bust a hole right through it. Like if they hit a house, they’d go right in the house. We kept dropping leaflets to them saying: “Do not run out on the field when you see the airplane because these boxes will kill you.” And a lot of people died because they ran into the field too soon and they’d get hit with boxes. When you’re coming in at 150 miles an hour and you’re going this way and you drop them, they go. When you dropped them, they would fall and spread out and cover an area of over a thousand feet. It was one of those things. The food missions, I enjoyed doing that because I felt that the Hollanders were friends, they helped a lot of guys get out. That’s a story by itself, what they went through to get guys out.
SS: Now you guys were dropping food because didn’t the Nazis blow up the dykes or something like that?
CT: No. The German Army went into Holland and took all the food. That’s all it was. They just went in there and took everything. Everything right out of the stores, brought their trucks right up to the door and loaded everything that was in the store into the thing. Then they would come back in a week or so and make sure that you didn’t put anything else up there, because they took that too. Germany was in need of food. They were in dire need or dire straits themselves. The one thing that killed the German Luftwaffe, though, and the German Army was, they never made parts for whatever they made. They would make a tank. Germany made a tank and that’s all. The United States made a tank, but they made extra tracks, extra wheels, extra engines, so that when the tank got over there, if the engine blew, they’ve got another engine to put in it. So we made parts. They didn’t make any parts. So when they lost an airplane, if it crash landed on their own field, they were lucky because they could go scavenge parts off it to make the next one fly. But as they started to lose them far away, there was no scavenging going on because they didn’t have any.
SS: Of course, they had you guys to deal with too, bombing their factories and things like that, transportation networks too.
CT: Oh yes.
SS: Are there any other missions that stand out in your mind other than the one we just talked about?
CT: I went to a place called Schweinmunde. It’s up in the Baltic Sea, the German Seaport. There was a battleship in there being repaired. I don’t even remember the name of the battleship. We went in there at 10,000 feet and dropped bombs on this battleship. I saw the bombs. One landed right next to it and exploded. Two of them hit the deck of the battleship and each one of them just hit the deck and bounced off, rolled into the water and never went off. We dropped six of them. Two of them went off and four of them just were duds. I never could understand why they didn’t go off. Then, after we were done with the mission, when we were interrogated, I heard the English…My group got interrogated twice – once by the U.S. Army and once by the British. Because the British base was close by and they used to come over and ask us if they could talk to us. I used to say, “Sure.” They would talk to you and they said, “We’re suspecting sabotage, is what we’re suspecting.” Somebody did something so that the thing wouldn’t go off. The propellers wouldn’t turn or whatever. I don’t know what the theory was but it was sabotage, they said. You know what the Germans did? They cut the top off of that battle ship and they buried it so that the Americans wouldn’t find it. And they didn’t find it for a lot of years after. They went in there to clean the harbor out one time. The United States Army was helping Germany get back on its feet. The bulldozer hit the battleship. It couldn't move it, of course. They found out that they buried the thing. Some old people came and told them, it’s there.
SS: So did they ever find out that it was sabotage? Is that why they buried to top of the ship or something like that?
CT: No. They didn’t want the Americans to get the ship. They didn’t want them to know where it was. That was the point. They wanted them to think that it got away and was gone. So they just cut it all up. When they couldn’t get it out of there, they decided to bury it. Of course, this war was winding down. They didn’t want anybody to get a hold of it. That was the point. That’s why they just buried the thing. I read a story where the Americans were helping them clean up the harbor area and they happened to run into it with a bulldozer and that’s how they found it.
SS: I was just curious about the pictures. I know you’ve got some of these pictures here. Were you taking pictures onboard the plane?
CT: No. The tail gunner took most of them because I was too busy. I didn’t have time. Take-off time, flying time, he was the one, of course he had to keep his eyes open, but he was the one that took the pictures, most of them.
SS: We were pretty much at the end of your tour. You mentioned before how you were wondering if you’d be able to get on B-29s and maybe go to Japan. So what happened right there towards the end?
CT: They said I was going to go to 29 school. I got on a ship and came home. I got to New York Harbor. The ship was quarantined. I spent almost two weeks there. Finally, the supply ship came and I talked to someone on the supply ship. I finally got somebody, a colonel from the United States Air Force recruiting office in New York, to come out to the ship, because I wanted to talk to him. We were in the bottom of the ship and we weren’t allowed on the upper deck. We had been seven days coming over here and then we got quarantined for two weeks. I told him the only reason I was the one that was talking is because I was bunked near the opening that they brought in the supplies. I told him that we weren’t allowed on the top deck and the top deck was what was being quarantined. Why couldn’t we leave? So, he said, “You have a point. If you weren’t allowed up there, then you can’t have what they got.” So, they came out with some doctors on a barge and the men came out of the ship, onto the barge, into a hut that was on the barge. They checked us over and then we went out, we stood on the barge and then when the barge got full, another ship came and took us to New Jersey, the Port of New Jersey and we got off the ship, finally, two weeks. From Port of New Jersey, they shipped us to Atlantic City because that’s the only place they had where there was room to keep us all. There were four thousand guys. So the four thousand of us wound up in Atlantic City. I got a notice that B-29 school was closed. They didn’t want anymore. And I got shipped to a place called Bryan, Texas, where Texas A&M is. I spent, probably three months as a line chief in Bryan, Texas and I was mustered out there. They thought that I came from Texas and they mustered me out in Texas. I told them, “I don’t live here. I live in Connecticut.” The guy said, “I can’t send you by train because I’m all out of train tickets.” He said, “Would you settle for a bus?” I thought, oh good Lord. So I said, “Yeah, I’ll settle for a bus. Just to get out of here.” So at least I was starting home. So they put me on a bus. I got back to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where I had been before, and as the bus pulled into the bus station, the axle broke. They told us it was going to be three days before they could get it repaired. So everybody on the bus either went back to where they came from, or they stayed where they were. So, I stayed in Ardmore. Now I had some friends there. A guy owned a cab company. I went to the cab company. I looked up the guy that was there, my buddy, I’m trying to think of his name. Anyway, he said the cab company wasn’t doing too good and that his wife could run the thing by herself. He said, “I’m going to take a job. Want to come along?” So, I said, “What are you going to do?” He says, “Moss Patterson owns the Lazy S Ranch in Ardmore.” And he said, “They’re going to go on a round-up.” He said, “You ride.” Because I had ridden before, with him. I went on a round-up as a cowboy for Moss Patterson on the Lazy S Ranch. I was there from sometime September till January, when the round-up was finished. I collected my pay and I got on the bus and I came home. The day I got home, I got home late in the afternoon. I went to see my former employer and the next day I went back to work.
SS: It sounds like you went right into work from getting out. Did you have any tough times adjusting from, say, military to civilian life?
CT: Not really. I went back to work as a mechanic on cars and trucks and stuff. Then, the man died, and I went to driving trucks. From there, I worked at that for a few years and then I went into Uniroyal in Naugatuck. I became a machinist and an engraver. You know, the basketball shoes we used to make? The bottom had designs in it? I’m the one that used to make the designs. There were a lot of guys doing the same thing. But I became an engraver. When Uniroyal closed, after I was there about eighteen years, I got a job driving again because I couldn’t get a job anywhere else. I was forty-six years old. Nobody wanted to know anything about hiring an old guy. Even the State of Connecticut told me I was too old. Back then, they could get away with that stuff. Today, they couldn’t. I tried to go to work for Greyhound, because I was capable of driving a bus. I tried to go to work for Trailways and they didn’t want to know from nothing. But the State of Connecticut was the one that really bothered me. The fact that I was a vet and they told me right out, you can’t give us twenty years so we don’t want you. I said, “I’m only short a year. Who cares?” They said, “We want twenty years.” At that time, they could do that. Today, civil rights would be violated.
SS: Definitely. So looking back, how would you rate your whole military experience?
CT: I had a good time. You blot out the bad things. You know, the ones where the fighter plane came real close, you thought he was going to get you. But due to the crew and their abilities and their not giving up idea, you know, they fought all the time. Sometimes, you almost ran out of ammunition. So, I would say, the military career was great. The civilian part of my life, with the exception of the depression time as a kid, I think my lifetime was pretty good. I would not complain. I wouldn’t do it over. If I had a lifetime to live over again, the only part I would change would be the war. The wartime, I wish that never happened because, like I showed you, the one plane going down. They were friends. They were buddies, some of them, the engineer on that plane was a buddy, a very good friend.
SS: Was that something that was tough to deal with, at the time, when you would lose people that were close?
CT: Yes. You lose people that are, when I say close, I mean close. You go on a mission, fighters come, the flak came, you do your job. You just see planes falling away. You go back to your barracks at night. It had six crews in a barracks, the enlisted men. You go back to the barracks at night and all the beds are rolled up, all the mattresses are rolled up and you look across and there’s only one other crew in there besides you. So four crews are gone. You don’t know whether they’re dead or whether they’re prisoners but they’re not there. The point is, they’re not where they’re supposed to be.
SS: That seems like that would be so tough to deal with. It seems hard to understand how you guys could go on in war after that kind of difficulty.
CT: My crew, we had a habit, when we came back and we’ll say there was just two crews missing. You stop and think about it, that’s six guys to a crew that you knew. My crew used to, we’d all look at each other and then we’d take a walk. We’d go out of the barracks and we’d walk. We’d talk and we’d walk and talk. We’d ask one guy, what did you do when you were a kid? And we’d start talking about his background. “Oh, my father was a sucker. He’d kick me in the ass every time I did anything wrong.” Or, “My mother would swat me with the broom because I did this or I did that.” But it changed the subject and it changed your point of view. You know this group therapy that they talk about today? That’s what we were doing and we didn’t even know it.
SS: So you think that helped keep you going?
CT: Sure. It helped you forget about it. You have to forget about it. If you don’t, you’re in trouble. If you dwell on it, on a thing, that’s bad. The funny part about it is, when tomorrow morning came, you got up just like you always did. You did the same things you did the day before and we used to go mission after mission, day after day after day. I’d pull seven missions in seven days because I was only there seven months. I jacked up my missions just as quick as, you know, but like I told you at the beginning, I didn’t arrive there at a time when they were going down and the whole barracks would be empty. Guys were dying fast. We lost more Air Corps aircrews than all the marines that ever died in the Pacific hitting the islands. We lost 26,000 GIs.
SS: That was 8th Air Force too. Yes, 8th Air Force casualties were very high.
CT: Just the 8th Air Force. You don’t have to go looking at any other. Just the 8th Air Force, 26,000, that’s a lot of guys, a lot of men.
SS: It sure is.
CT: The stress of the highs and the lows in the Air Force were tremendous. Today, you got a pass. You don’t have to fly today. For three days you could go to London if you wanted to. Most of the time, my crew and I would take our bikes and take a ride. We’d go riding around England. We met some nice people in those three days that we were around our base. We met Mr. Haylock. He was a nice man. He sold us eggs. We used to talk to him like a friend, like a neighbor. We used to tell him “Please don’t stand in the doorway when we’re taking off.” And he’d say, “Well this is my house.” And I’d say, “Yeah but go stay by the barn or something like that. Go hide some place,” I said, “Because one of these days, these airplanes are not going to make it. One of them is going to hit your house.”
SS: Yes. Because it wasn’t just you’re plane, right? It was the whole squadron.
CT: Oh yes. Anywhere from forty-five to fifty airplanes would go right over his house. Depending on how many were going. Sometimes we only had thirty-five, when things were bad. The maintenance on the airplane is never ending and sometimes the mechanics that were working all night in the rain and the snow and the sleet and all kinds of adversities, just couldn’t do it. So, sometimes there’d be more than a dozen planes down. So you’d take off with thirty-eight. So you’d take off with thirty-five. And you’d make up the squadron, would put it together, and you’d have thirty airplanes or forty airplanes. Maximum efforts were different, though. Maximum efforts were every plane that the propellers would turn was going. You’d wind up with fifty of them up there.
SS: I guess one of the last questions I might ask you is, how do you think about the way the war is portrayed today? Maybe the way it’s taught in schools and whatnot?
CT: That’s the big problem. It’s not taught in schools. Most schools don’t know anything about it. I’ve met a ten year old out at Oxford Airport. He didn’t know anything about the 8th Air Force. When he was there, he said, “What’s that pin on your shirt?” I said, “That’s the 8th Air Force.” He said, “What’s that?” Now a ten year old, somewhere along the line, should’ve known that the 8th Air Force was a bomber group. He said to me, “What did they do?” I said, “They flew airplanes like this one you just came through.” “Oh,” he said, “This was in the war?” I said, “Why certainly. That’s what all the guns are for. That’s what the bomb racks are for.” “Oh, I didn’t know you did that.” And this is a ten year old. I wish the schools would do more to educate the children that their grandfathers were guys like me. It doesn’t have to be just the Air Force. If they don’t know anything about the Air Force, then they don’t know anything about the Marines or the Navy or the guys in the submarines or whatever. They don’t know anything about it. I had a couple buddies that were in the submarines. He sat in Tokyo Bay for a week in a submarine. Now if that wasn’t hell, I don’t know where you could find it. You know what I mean?
SS: Yes. Yes I do.
CT: Then he died of sugar diabetes. He served his country and did well, served it well, and survived it in a submarine. There again, it’s like a bomber crew. You know, those guys got to be knitted together. Because if they weren’t there must’ve been an awful lot of fighting going on.
SS: Especially when you’re acting in isolation like that.
CT: I wish that World War II was part of American History in schools somewhere. There’s got to be some books somewhere that would make the children knowledgeable of what their grandparents went through. It’s not just guys, too, because when I was in Oklahoma and I became line chief at Will Rogers Field, every plane that was ferried from one side of the United States to the other, were flown by women pilots. It’s amazing that they did the job that they did. And they flew all kinds of airplanes.
SS: Bombers included?
CT: Bombers included. I had to take charge of refueling the airplanes because they could go from Long Island, where they were made combat ready. They used to land in Oklahoma, refuel and then fly on to Las Angeles or San Diego. Then they’d pick up a Lockheed P-38 and they’d fly the thing to Oklahoma, to me. I would fuel it up for them and they’d fly that P-38, twin engines now, and they’d fly it back to New York someplace, wherever the base was over here, in New Jersey. I think it was in Newark at that time. Then they’d take the airplane, take it apart, put it on a ship in New York Harbor, in New Jersey Harbor, and ship it overseas. And the girls did this all the time, back and forth. I’d seen them come in with twin engines. I’d seen them come in with B-17s. I’ve seen them come in with B-24s.
SS: Did you have to work with them as part of a ground crew, then?
CT: I didn’t actually gas the plane, my crew did it. But I was the line chief. I had to make sure they got whatever they needed. A lot of the girls would come in and, “How long is it going to take?” And I’d say, “Oh, half an hour.” “Could you make it forty-five minutes?” All they did was, they probably just went, sat down in the lounge and rested for forty minutes, or whatever, or went and powdered their nose or do whatever women do.
SS: Were they officers?
CT: Oh no. Most of them were just civilians. There were some Marine pilots and Air Force pilots that were women but most of them were just civilians.
SS: Yes, I agree. It was something that touched everybody.
CT: Yes. Like I said, there was more…and nurses too, nurses are included. If the children knew what their grandparents did, it would be an amazing thing. Because a lot of their grandparents are already gone. They don’t have any.
SS: It’s one of the reasons why I think a project like this is important.
CT: This is a great opportunity for me to talk.
SS: Yes. I’ve learned a lot from listening to you. I really appreciate it. I guess the last question I would ask then is; is there anything else you can think of that you might want to add to the story? Or anything else you wanted to say?
CT: No. I guess I just about said it all. I’ve never talked this much to anybody, ever. So, whatever you got, if somebody reads it and gets anything out of it, my time wasn’t wasted.
SS: Well it definitely wasn’t wasted with me. I really appreciate it. That’s what I hope too, that some day, somewhere along the line, it’ll help somebody else out.
CT: Well I hope so. I really do.
SS: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
CT: You’re welcome, Steve.