Ground Exec. Moffett describes the deployment overseas in three phases. First there was the deployment of the air echelon by flight. Then there was the rather mysterious journey of a four-man Advance Party (of which Major Moffett was the leader). And finally, the ground echelon suffered cramped quarters all the way from Peyote to Camp Kilmer by troop train, and hence, across the dangerously U-Boat infested Atlantic in a luxury liner converted to a smelly, rabbit-warren type of troop carrier. The men entrapped in this third contingent were captive to train and ship. "Powers that be knew where they were at all times." Evidently the air echelon and the advance party displayed freer spirit. And a bit of hell raising too. Major Moffett's accounting for these two sections remains cryptic to this day.
"In spite of it all," Moffett writes, "all Fortresses got to England by April 30 with all personnel accounted for. However, I attributed much of the early paper shortage in the ETO to the many explanations that had to be made absolving our fly-boys from the silly charge that they ruined every hotel they stayed in throughout the United States. As for the Advance Party," Moffett concludes, "having taken a solemn vow with my three colleagues to never relate the full truth of that venture, suffice it to say that the Gestapo finally found us after we spent six weeks in oblivion. We were hustled aboard a C-54 and flown to England where we joined the air echelon on April 27, 1943 at our first station, Grafton Underwood."
Two who flew across were Ray McKinnon, Bill Hartman's bombardier, and pilot Captain Gary Lambert. McKinnon's experience in Salinas indicates how easy it was to anticipate Air Force intentions. In Salinas, crews were briefed as follows: First they would fly down to Florida. From there they would go further south to Brazil. The route would take them from Ascention Island to Dakar, and hence, to a base in North Africa.
Two days later, the crews received their new planes and were dispatched over "the northern route" to Great Britain. In fact, McKinnon's route took him first to Syracuse and then to Presque Isle, Maine. Here another Hollywood star brushed shoulders with the unit. Clark Gable had just been promoted to Captain and was also headed for England. Gable's unpretentiousness and genuine friendly nature endeared him to McKinnon and his friends. "He left orders at the bar for free drinks for one and all," McKinnon recalls. "I was very happy for him and told him so. He even signed my short snorter." When the weather cleared a week later, the crew flew to Gander Lake, Newfoundland. (Both Gander and Goose Bay had developed into stopping-off places for combat crews as well as for Air Transport Command pilots who often ferried new aircraft into Britain.) The following day, the crew made the final big hop over the Atlantic to Prestwick. Like all crews who made this flight, McKinnon's had been warned that they might encounter some long-range MC-110s who often preyed on unarmed, solitary bombers during this leg of the journey. Two days after reaching Prestwick, Scotland, the crew took off and landed at the first 96th overseas base, Grafton Underwood.
"Here," McKinnon concludes, "we did a lot of practice formation flying . . . I caught a hell of a cold. Just couldn't seem to get warm. Mainly this was because there wasn't enough fuel and because none of us knew how to use charcoal."
It rained often and, as usual for the 96th, this Station 106 near Kettering was still unfinished. Soon it became known as Grafton-Undermud.
When crews were equipped with new B17s in Walker and Salinas, they nicknamed the aircraft immediately. Actual painting of nose-art would have to wait until reunion with the ground echelon in England. Once there, crews could enlist the remarkable artistry of Sergeant Gerald Athey and Corporal Johnnie White. But even as the 96th crews headed for the ETO, they were already referring to themselves as belonging to Wabbit Twacks, Ole Puss, Mischief Maker, Tarfu or some like name that would soon become famous in the air war against Germany.
Captain Garey Lambert flew across in aircraft A/C 42-3118, which he called Daisy June after the Clem Kadiddlehoffer character in the Red Skelton radio show.
"I think she must have been built by Mrs. Robinson's Aluminum Screen Door and Airplane Company," Lambert recalls. "She was totally out of trim and, despite our best efforts, remained that way. On take-off, you had to apply full left rudder and back off a little on the left out-board engine to keep her straight. I complained about it so much that they gave me a new aircraft after the third combat mission."
As the 38 aircrews (and as many support personnel as 38 B-17s could carry) arrived at Grafton Underwood along with Major Moffett's Advance Party -- or was that a lost battalion? -- the ground echelon was beginning an insufferable odyssey. Aircraft mechanic Curtis Powell was one of them.
"We boarded a troop train for the long, long ride to the east coast. Security was tight, and no one knew in advance the route we were taking. Our staging area turned out to be Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and now we were pretty sure we were heading for England. On May 2, '43, we boarded the Queen Elizabeth in New York Harbor for a six day zig-zag course across the Atlantic. We were assigned two men to a bunk which meant a guy had 24 hours in a cabin followed by 24 hours on deck -- wherever you could find a spot. It was cold when we left New York, but one morning when we woke up to warmer weather, we were told that we were near the Azores. We disembarked at night and got our first ride in an English train during a total blackout."
"As we boarded that train," Sergeant Powell remembers, "Scottish ladies welcomed us with meat pies and chocolate bars."
According to Lt. Ehrenreich's diary, the Queen Elizabeth steamed up the Firth of Clyde and docked at Greenock. Here 96ers disembarked onto barges which took them to quai-side where trains were waiting to take them south. This was on May 11. The air echelon had already been at Grafton Underwood since April 14. They had been waiting in calm desperation for the ground echelon to catch up with them. They were doomed to wait some more for, in the inexplicable logic of service life, the ground echelon was headed for an airbase near the village of Great Sailing in Essex named Andrews Field. On May 13 "Sandy" Moffett began setting up operations here in anticipation of the inevitable merger with the air echelon.
Twenty-four months of combat were about to begin.
96th Staff, Peyote AFB, February 1943
L-R: Lt. Rosen; Lt. Robinson (Weather); Moffett, Ground Exec; Bishof, Intelligence; Archie Old, CO; Hanson, Communications; Ready, Air Exec; Hayes, Asst Ops; Chaplain Smith; Cotter, Operations