An Ominous Beginning
The air echelon, led by Colonel Old, spent April flying from Kansas to England and trying to settle in. However, the 38 Fortresses did not proceed in one beautiful formation to this ultimate destination. Some tarried, some got purposely lost, some had to land en route for repairs and others were thwarted by weather or red tape. Most crews can be accounted for on either Operational Orders dated April 6 and/or April 8 from Presque Isle. A few more are documented from Dow Field as late as the 13th. Although the unit was somewhat schizoid, the ground personnel being split from the air echelon at Andrews Field and Grafton Underwood respectively, it was immediately assigned to the 4th Bombardment Wing (4BW) commanded by General Anderson. And the air echelon began intensive combat training under the 305BG, the CAN DO outfit commanded by the indomitable Curtis LeMay.
Navigator Joe Hudson describes those early days.
"Training included combat formation flying, tactics, bombing procedures and ground school. . . . LeMay was already revolutionizing aerial warfare. The group was lectured to constantly by both American and RAF veterans on air-sea rescue, communications and POW expectations."
Training flights such as those over the devastation of Coventry brought the war closer to 96ers. And if the war's proximity was not made more palpable by the combination of LeMay's demands, the rationing, the blackout, the barrage balloons, the air wardens and sporadic nuisance raids by the Germans, Joe Hudson reminds us, there was always Axis Sally. "She broadcast to us daily and had information about our group such as the names of our commanders, our location and our aircraft."
Although aircrews had arrived at Grafton Underwood as far back as April 16th, the 96th Bomb Group was still a very scattered outfit. Even now in the second week of May ground personnel were still arriving over at the newly constructed airbase at Andrews Field. Therefore, many aircrews not only had to perform their own maintenance, but when rumors that the first mission was imminent, they even had to assist in bomb-loading and ammunition supply.
One crew, Lt. William Hartman's, had spent the 12th of May changing engine spark plugs. They even combined talents to sew a patch of fabric on their plane's rudder. Seems a chunk was torn away by brushing too close to the fence at their hardstand.
Whether his group was scattered or not, Commanding Officer Lt. Colonel Archie Old Jr. was chomping at the bit. He had drilled a nucleus of thirty-six crews for war against Germany and he wanted to have at it. His eagerness was catching, and so it was with mixed emotions of fear and exhilaration that the Group accepted ther pre-midnight teletype on the 12th which ordered them to strike the Luftwaffe field at St. Omer tomorrow.
Hartman's Bombardier, Lt. Ray McKinnon, soon found that spending the night loading 500 pounders into the bomb bay of Ruth L without armorers or any prior experience was a mean task. Throughout the early morning darkness, the 22 crews who had been alerted for this first mission prepared themselves and their planes as best they could. Everyone was serious. The only levity came from messages to Hitler which they chalked on the bombs.
History does not record that anyone had a premonition about starting combat on the 13th. In retrospect, historians can say that the one good thing about this date was the fact that the 8th Bomber Command had literally doubled its operational strength. Consequently, today would mark the baptism of fire for three new bomb groups -- the 94th and the 95th as well as the 96th.
But for the 96th, all the ominous signs began piling up to support the proverbial "13" superstition.
Having trained so long and having come so far, almost to a man everyone crowded around the control tower or shuffled nervously somewhere "down the line" to watch the take-offs. Those crews who had been selected today were proud.
Those who had to wait their turn were jealous. But from mail clerk to cook to commanding officer, the adrenaline flowed as take-offs started.
Lew Feldstein, co-pilot of Captain Joe Bender's crew, was one of those gathered by the control tower counting the taxiing aircraft. He recalls one plane especially where a waist gunner was leaning nonchalantly on his stowed gun during take-off. Not too promising a picture. The "Old Man" will be furious if he sees that, Feldstein thought. Today Archie would want everything perfect and everybody alert.
Especially today. Not just because it was his Group's introduction to combat, but also because General Frank Armstrong was flying as official observer.
The bad signs were multiplying. No sooner had Feldstein shaken off any apprehensions caused by the sight of a sloppy gunner than he heard brakes squealing and saw two planes veer off the runway. What was worse, it appeared, was that the deputy leader could not take off. Nevertheless, between 1339 and 1404 twenty-two planes were aloft.
The next incredible foul-up happened just after assembly when the group reached Spalding in Lincolnshire. The lead aircraft, which was flown by Lt. Preston, had to abort due to an oxygen leak in the ball turret. What could be more disappointing to Colonel Old than the fact that both he and General Armstrong were in this plane and had to turn back?
The fact that everyone turned back! That's what could be more disappointing. It happened. It really did.
Because the deputy lead never got off the ground, there was no one to aggressively assume command. Colonel Old had constantly drilled his pilots in close formation flying to follow the leader -- always!
And that's exactly what the rest of the Group did when Captain Preston dropped his wheels and peeled out of formation. They followed him. Where he went, they went. But the worst was yet to come.
Captain Darrol Roger's had been on a roll of back luck that started two days ago when his plane Miss Poisonality had damaged a wing in a collision with a contractor's truck. Today Roger's was flying A/C 42-29752. His navigator, Lt. Joe Hudson, writes of the tragedy:
"We had been warned about the possibility of being attacked while we were taking off or landing. Consequently, our machine guns were charged -- when Captain Rogers banked the ship, the right waist gun discharged about fifty rounds severing the right horizontal stabilizer. By great flying skill, Captain Rogers and his co-pilot, Lt. Norville Gorse, managed to correct the stall. However, the ship continued to climb although the yoke was as far forward as possible. One of the waist gunners, probably Sgt. Wolfekeule, and the tail gunner, Sgt. Dominic, were wounded by the runaway gun."
Lew Feldstein reports that in a subsequent conversation, Lt. Gorse said that it took both him and Rogers to hold the aircraft steady. And both were very big men. Eventually they rigged cords to the yoke. This held the plane steady so the crew could bail out. Then they flew over the airbase where the six enlisted men (including the two wounded) parachuted. Then they flew up to and over the Wash where they jettisoned their bombs. Lt. Rawlings, Bombardier, and Joe Hudson bailed out near Kings Lynn.
By now the plane was becoming more uncontrollable and heading out to sea. Air Sea Rescue was in communication.
Gorse told Feldstein later that just as he was about to bail out, he felt a jolt. Rogers should have been right behind him but had apparently gone back to resecure the yoke-cords.
One of the 96th's earliest combat diarists was waist gunner Leo Laky from Lt. Reuben Neie's famous string of Kipling's Error planes. Neie's crew was not scheduled for this first mission, they had three men ill. But Sergeant Laky was on the ground looking up. And what an observant person! His 25-mission diary captured the aerial war better than most.
"May 13. This was a bad start . . . some pilots start engines too late; others not at all sure which position they were supposed to fly . . . one plane went off
runway . . . held up entire Group which kept circling . . . almost in formation except for Captain Rogers who was trying to catch up . . . we heard a 50 caliber go off; saw tracers; and then Rogers' right horizontal stabilizer came fluttering down."
On the ground, personnel strained necks, shaded eyes and held breaths. The Colonel would be furious. The brass was watching and the 96th was becoming more inept by the minute.
When Rogers' men started bailing out, Sergeant Laky had reached the control tower.
"Dominick, the tail gunner," Laky wrote "was hit in the spine by the runaway gun. So they tied a rope to his rip cord and threw him out over the field -- the plane must have gone out of control over the water -- Lt Gorse was picked up within the hour -- Captain Rogers died."
Captain Darrol Rogers was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near London.
By 1650 all aircrews had landed; but for them the day's tribulations were not over. Feldstein states that all crews, those who participated and those who didn't, crowded into the briefing room.
First General Armstrong delivered a blistering tirade. Then it was Colonel Old's turn. Never was there such an ass-chewing. A well-deserved ass-chewing it was too. Already it was being said that 96ers were more afraid of displeasing their C.O. than they were of the enemy they had yet to meet.
Over at Andrews Field death would visit too. Later on this night of the 13th, the Luftwaffe bombed the nearby town of Chelmsford. Most 96ers obeyed instructions and headed for the bomb shelters. A few, however, stayed above ground to watch the spectacular battle between German bombers and British anti-aircraft. Unfortunately, a British shell, having failed to detonate in the air, fell in the 337th area and killed Corporal Alexander Williams, an American Indian from Oklahoma. Williams had been standing in the doorway of his hut. The next morning, Doc Hartman surveyed the damage. "Several huts had been perforated, others demolished and many of our vehicles were inoperable." A lighter casualty, Hartman tells us, was the operations officer, Gale Shaffner. He had been "kissed" on the forehead by shrapnel. The Doc tended to him and put him in for a Purple Heart.
Thus ended May 13, 1943, a day marred by the 96th's abortive call to battle and the first two overseas casualties.
The 94th and the 95th had been bloodied. The 96th had demonstrated sloppy flying and had incurred its first airman casualty without leaving England. Many men felt ashamed as if two new bomb groups had matriculated in war college while the 96th had stayed back. A directive was issued that guns were never more to be primed or adjusted in the stowed position. From such an initial fiasco no one could predict that this bomb group would not only redeem itself over and over during the war but would merit two Presidential Citations.
Captain Darrol Rogers' plane about to crash (note missing horizontal stabilizer).