Birth of a Bomb Group
July 1942-April 1943
The 96th Bombardment Group (H) was CONSTITUTED on January 28, 1942 in War Department Letter 320.2 from the Adjutant General.
For almost six months, nothing else happened (except for rumors). But when that letter was amended on July 1, 1942 to change the place of ACTIVATION from Oklahoma City to Salt Lake City, the mills of the gods began grinding faster. And so it was that General Orders 113, dated July 10, 1942 from headquarters Second Air Force (2AF) mandated that this new B-17 outfit be activated at Army Air Force Base Salt Lake.
As early as June, the very efficient 29th Bomb Group commanded by Colonel Bob Travis had begun transferring from McDill Field, Tampa, Florida to Gowen Field near Boise, Idaho. Since Pearl Harbor, the 29th had already supplied start-up personnel for other new bomb groups. Now it would help supply the nucleus for the 96th.
The United States had determined that it would dedicate its forces to the defeat of Germany before Japan. A consequence of that decision required beefing up the Air Force and deploying a great part of it to the European Theater of Operations (ETO). To that effect, General Hap Arnold had already sent a task force to England under the leadership of General Ira Eaker for the purpose of working with our British allies in order to convert East Anglia into the world's largest aircraft carrier. Within this monumental war plan, the 96th was just one of many B-17 and/or B-24 outfits that would be constituted, activated, trained and deployed against the Nazi menace.
With so many new groups entering the process from activation to deployment, Army paperwork often lagged behind the activities it authorized. For example, the 96th first appears on orders other than SECRET August 5, 1942 on General Orders 130, HQS. 2AF. These orders indicated that such a group should be activated at Salt Lake City, use that base as a temporary station but be prepared to move to permanent quarters at Walla Walla, Washington. Yet, within a day or so, Section II of General Orders 132 changed things so that the temporary station would be Gowen Field, Boise, and the permanent one would be Pocatello, Idaho. This order also called for the activation of four 96th Bomb Group squadrons: the 337th, 338th, 339th, and the 413th. But as for people, the order ended in uncertainty. "Cadre to be announced" were the actual words. Thus, by August 8, 1942, many remotely stationed Air Force administrators considered the 96th to exist only on paper.
But there were a few who knew better. Rumors, the verbs and vibes which could electrify life in the service, had beseiged the men of the 29th since June. On June 20th, Captain Gary Lambert flew his B-17E from Tampa to Boise as part of 29BG transfer. "According to my flight records," Lambert told the interiewer some forty years later, "I flew for the 29th until August 26. So I must have been transferred somewhere between the 26th and September 5, because on that day I was ordered to fly to Walla Walla as a 96er."
And on July 8, Sergeant Clifford Byrd, freshly graduated by mechanics and gunnery schools, arrived at Tampa only to be whisked immediately to Boise where he was assigned engineering duties and the top-turret aboard Captain Ralph Ward's Fortress.
Colonel Alexander S. (Sandy) Moffett was with the 96th from beginning to end during WWII. This former ground executive was the right hand man to all four of the 96th's commanding officers. In the early summer of 1942, he was serving as group adjutant to the 29th at McDill. In an office across from his was his dear friend, the group operations officer, the then Major Archie Old Jr. Archie Old would become the 96th's first Commander.
"As rumors began to fly," Moffett recalls, "Archie began to dream of being one of the first commanders to take a Bomb Group overseas who was not a West Point grad. I will never forget that night late in July of 1942 when the newly promoted Lt. Colonel came to my apartment to inform me that the 96th Bomb Group was being formed, that he was to be Group Commander, and that he had requested me to be his ground exec."
Another such recollection comes from Master Sergeant Woodrow Hilton. "At Group Operations," Hilton writes, "I met the then Major Archie Old around January 1942. He introduced himself, asked where I was from (probably knew by my accent) and told me he was from Texas also. He then sent me on the first of many noontime trips to the PX for a barbeque sandwich, an R.C. cola and a pack of Pall Malls. This was his lunch. Never varied." In early July, Old, who had been promoted to Lt. Colonel, summoned M/Sgt. Hilton to his office.
"It was then he told me he was going to take over a new group and would like me to be Chief Clerk of Operations," Hilton remembers. "I said 'yes' and he then told me to begin concentrating on cadre personnel and that we would be meeting at 0900 daily to form a cadre."
Forty-seven years after the event, M/Sgt. Hilton recalls Colonel Old's invitation with pride. "I figured there would be very few first choices, and I was honored to be one of them."
Another first choice was the then 2/Lt. Stanley Hand. "In February of 1942, I was called to Col. Old's office where he gave me a book about how to be a squadron commander. He told me to study it because I was going to need it. I know," Hand writes, "that history will say that the 96th was organized in August 1942, but I'll tell you how I learned about it. It was as early as May, when Marjorie, my wife now for more than 47 years, asked me one night why I hadn't told her we were going to Boise, Idaho."
"I asked her where she learned this, for I certainly did not know about it. She said they were talking about it in the beauty parlor. I asked her when we were leaving and she said 'in three weeks.' Three weeks to the day and we were on our way to Boise."
Between July 10 and August 4, Lt. Col. Old, Major Moffett, the major's right hand, M/Sgt. Tom McGeehan, Sergeant Hilton and a few others conducted those 0900 meetings. "There was much negotiating between our small group and Colonel Bob Travis," Moffett writes. "By and large we did well with some strong-arm help from friends in Second Air Force headquarters."
M/Sgt. Hilton recalls these marathon meetings with a laugh. "I still remember Jocko Handress coming in every morning at 0900 with his ball cap on. He'd sit on the floor against the wall and every now and then come up with an emphatic rejection: 'He's no goddamn good. Couldn't crew chief a wheel barrow for me!' And that would be the end of that guy's consideration."
The daily negotiations for a transfusion of people-plasma from the 29th bore remarkable fruit. Ready to breathe life into the bare numerical designation "96th" were a handful of veterans of WWI and a liberal sprinkling of professional soldiers with years of Army and Air Force service behind them. Joining this seasoned nucleus would be newly trained men who were cooling their heels at Salt Lake City and Boise. Other joiners were still in cadet and enlisted training schools. In short, Americans of between 18 and 50 of all classes and conditions were about to be diverted to this new bomber group.
The first transfusion from the 29th came through on Special Orders 216, Gowen Field, August 4, 1942. The following seasoned veterans were transferred to the 96th: Lt. Col. Archie Old Jr., Majors Luther Fairbanks and Alexander Moffett; Captains Henry Schlessinger, Louis Kohn, Leon Lowry, William Ready, Ben DeJohn and Stanley I. Hand; First Lts. William C. Deppin and Billy G. Griffith and Second Lts. Robert L. Robb, George McClelland, Gordon Lintzenich, Charles Jordan and Warrant Officer John H. Cole.
A subsequent order refined the cadre of enlisted men by squadron assignments. And on August 8, Special Orders 220 directed Major Moffett with Lieutenants Robb, McClelland and Lintzenich to Salt Lake City "for the purpose of receiving and organizing cadres of the ground echelon, 96th Bomb Group." Meanwhile, as Moffett's small task force sought a ground echelon, the following officers were added to the 96th from the 29th. Captains Bruce Morore and Francis Tiller; 2nd Lts. Antoine Morin, Edward Barnard, Raymond Mial, Bernard Wells, Robert Cossaboom, Robert L. Hodson, Harold W. Hansen and Warren Ringgold. Three more officers were added on August 18 by Special Orders 230. They were 2/Lts. Joseph Phipps, Frank Pomerantz and Bernard A. Ehrenreich.
Transfers kept pouring out of the 29BG in this sequence. August 25, SO237: 2/Lts. David Bowen, Jack Knuppenburg, Danny Markowitz, Johnnie Ozier and George Rawlings. Also the following enlisted men (EM) as aerial engineer-gunners: S/Sgt. Robert W. Goldsberry and Sergeants Rudolph Antalla, Louis Caporusso, William J. Connell, Walter R. Cyr, Michael R. D'Alelio, Robert H. Eaton, Andrew Goiurash, Lloyd G. Hume, Vernon L. Jans, Robert McDonald, Charles Mosbey, Lawrence J. Nagel, Bernard Resnicoff, William Sippel and George F. Wyherek. Also the following 2nd Lts. as navigators: Dunstan Abel, Stewart Bachtelle, Ralston Bixler, Joseph Boulos, Walter Breslin, Monroe Coleman, Robert S. Connor Jr., Freeman Craig, Danny Crist, Roy H. Crow, Omar Gonzairez, Patrick Guglielmo, Clyde Halstead, Merle C. Hamilton, William G. Hughes, Douglas Johnson, Benjamin Jones, William M. Jones, Daniel Joyce, Floyd H. Klay, John P. Kotowski, John W. Landerdale, Quentin McCluer, Daniel McCauley, Eugene McGowan, Earle Milichamp and Neil V. Oldenbuttel.
Orders on August 29 sent Lieutenants McClatchey, Cunningham, Youngs and Birdsall to Hill Field, Ogden, Utah for instructions in Blind Landing Procedures, a temporary duty which they completed before proceeding to Walla, Walla. These four officers represented each squadron and it would be their duty to pass the instructions on to other pilots. On August 30 orders sent 1/Lt. Bob Cossaboom, Armament Officer of the 337th, to Bangor, Maine for a short course in fire control and gunnery before reporting to Walla Walla.
These last two orders of the 29th and 30th of August were perfect examples of lagging paperwork. The personnel involved had left Boise for these courses days before. Personnel officers and sergeants were engulfed in a flurry of paperwork as they attempted to formalize verbal orders from Colonels Travek and Old. In fact, back on the 14th, SO226 had directed the 96th to move its ground echelon by rail to Walla Walla. It was "good-bye Boise" for sure when on the 30th of August SO242 directed the air echelon to proceed by rail to Walla Walla also.
Lt. Gen. Archie J. Old Jr. who, as a Lt. Colonel, trained diligently and led fearlessly.