Training: Walla Walla
Besides the influx of transfers from the 29th arriving by train or rail from Boise, there was another important troop train that had been dispatched from Salt Lake City. Ground Exec. "Sandy" Moffett and the three squadron adjutants, Lts. Robb, McClelland and Lintzenich had spent most of August selecting the greater part of the ground echelon.
"Upon our arrival at Salt Lake Army Air Base," Moffett recalls, "we found the Personnel Replacement Center quarantined under a meningitis scare and were told that no troops could be moved until the quarantine was lifted. However, fate was on our side, for the colonel in charge happened to be a friend of mine from our college days. And with a bit of urging, he allowed the four of us to examine all the personnel records on the enlisted men in the center. The result was that we got 500 enlisted men specialists who were the cream of the crop, and I feel sure that this bit of good luck played a big part in helping to shape the 96th Bomb Group ground echelon into the outstanding success it proved to be throughout the war. We escorted these men to Walla Walla by troop train."
Eventually 20% of the 96th's cadre came from the 29th Bomb Group, and the remaining 80% came from the Salt Lake replacement pool.
Because there had not been any ground echelon to speak of back at Boise, training concentrated on the air crews. But at this new air base, the 96th became whole. Therefore, complete unit training was to begin here. However, the base was in turmoil. For one thing, it was still under construction. For another thing, the 91st Bomb Group was still on the base winding up its overseas training. With one group coming and another going, things were crowded, confused and frustrating.
Lieutenant Bernard Ehrenreich (who would become group Public Relations Officer) did not flatter the local Chamber of Commerce with his diary notes: "A lousy town," he wrote. "Dust, dust and more dust!" And yet his later entries would tell us that it was here in Walla Walla where the group made the first of many brushes against Hollywood. "I was in a buddy's hotel room for a few drinks," Ehrenreich notes, "and we had the door open. Walter Pigeon came down the hall and we invited him in for a drink. Then Adolph Menjoyu. We talked for a while, and later, as we were leaving for the base, Joan Leslie came out of her room. The three of us were just tight enough to ask her for a date," Ehrenreich concludes, "but, wonder of wonders, she declined. Really a lovely, charming girl."
M/Sgt. Woodrow Hilton was at Walla Walla to meet all the newcomers. He and the personnel staff also did their best to say bon voyage to the 91st. When the 91st held a party to celebrate their leaving for Europe, Hilton was one of the new group's charter members to participate in the festivities making every effort to expedite the older group off the base.
Hilton needed a respite like the 91st party because the pace within the 96th quickened each day Although the 96th would stay here only a month, it was a month of many sleepless nights for the men involved in personnel and organization.
"September 1st started a full teaching schedule," Hilton recalls. "Training, schedules, reports, teaching new personnel, working with all four squadron ops." It was truly a time of growing pains. 413th Squadron C.O. Stan Hand can vouch for the accelerated pace. "To insure maximum utilization of people and equipment," Hand writes, "the 2nd Air Force created the 'Twenty-Four Hour Work Schedule.' This actually meant that a man was to work eight hours, rest eight hours and play eight hours. If a crew landed at midnight, it was expected to play for eight hours before going to bed. The mess halls served breakfast 24 hours a day . . . everyone worked their butts off. No leave, no true recreation, no nothing. Just fly, work shakedown and continue to get organized."
Bob Mahan remembers the rigorous training too. "Bombardiers were scheduled on the bomb trainers at 0200, while pilots had to be in Link Trainers by noon or 1600 or at suppertime. Gunners were scheduled around the clock too. As assistant ops officer, I soon gained the name 'Dirty End' (as in dirty-end-of-the-stick) because I was also the scheduling officer. For some inexplicable reason," Mahan concludes, "I was proud of the nickname and even had it painted on my A-2 jacket."
Still the first weeks here saw a group small enough so that the charter members and "early-oners" could get to know each other. One transfer from the 29th who would stay with the unit until the end was S/Sgt. Jack Jacobson, a cook. Sooner or later everyone got to know mess sergeants. Jacobson claims to have been the first to spice up the 96th menus by offering choices, "take it or leave it!"
Mechanic Curtis Power was another joiner at this station. "I remember that very first morning," Sergeant Powell writes. "I was told to report to the 337th line chief, M/Sgt. Erwin Gould. I also remember his words when I told him I was a sheet metal specialist. 'What in hell am I supposed to do with a sheet metal guy? What I need is an engine mechanic!'"
Not very gratifying words," Powell adds "for a guy who had just spent four months of intensive study on aircraft skin and structure repair at Chanute Field. Eventually I was assigned a mechanic's helper, and my very first job was washing out the wheel wells of a B-17 with 100% octane gas. I damn near asphixiated myself."
If the upside to Walla Walla was the "getting to know you" opportunity, the downside was accidents. One of the first mishaps occurred to Captain Carrol "Joe" Bender's plane Tarfu. As ball turret gunner Frank Cardaman explains, Tarfu was about to return to Walla Walla from a cross-country training flight to Ogden, Utah. As the B-17 sped down the runway, a truck drove out on it too. By remarkably instinctive coordination between Bender and his co-pilot, Lew Feldstein, a full-fledged collision was avoided. But even at that the plane's right wheel hit the truck, and at the moment of impact, a propeller cut through the truck's cab. Although pilot and co-pilot explored all salvaging possibilities on the way back to base, there was no avoiding a crash landing.
"Captain Bender advised us that he would have to crash land," Cardaman recalls. "He gave us the option of bailing out but we all voted to stay with the plane. After we successfully emergency landed, our navigator, Lew Fluelling, took our parachutes to the riggers' shop. They told him that not one of the chutes would have opened. "From that day on," Cardaman concludes, "we stayed with Captain Bender and Lieutenant Feldstein no matter what." As we shall see, this crew would distinguish itself through several dangerous situations. The plane's name itself, Tarfu, seemed to accept danger. It was an anacronym for "Things Are Really Fouled Up."
On September 13, Bernard Ehrenreich's diary recalls a fatal accident which had happened about three days earlier. "Three fliers were killed when one of our B-17's crashed into a mountain," Ehrenreich records. "They were the navigator, radio-op, and the tail gunner." Because this accident had resulted in multiple deaths, a squadron commander was replaced.
True to the saying that bad things came in threes, the third accident happened early on the morning of September 25. The plane, B-17 #41-9088, Rum Boogie, was piloted by Lt. James Sanders who, sensing things were not right, aborted his take-off. The plane careened into a ditch. No one was hurt, but since the plane was totalled, an investigation was in order.
M/Sgt. Woodrow Hilton remembers the event very clearly. "The operations officer, myself, the squadron commander, the pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier were ordered into Colonel Old's office. The purpose of the investigation was to determine if there had been negligence on the part of the pilot. "Evidently the meeting became quite heated for the term "court-martial" was used a few times.
"But," Sergeant Hilton recalls, "the pilot remained calm and unruffled. The next time someone mentioned 'court-martial,' Colonel Old exploded. 'Any man that could come directly here from that wreck, be raked over the coals like we've been doing and still remain calm, polite, and in control of himself should be OK in combat. Case closed.'"
Some forty years later, T/Sgt. Dick Postier, one of Sanders' waist gunners, provided the 96th Archives with an actual copy of this accident report. It treated the matter as pure accident. No blame anywhere. But one of the group's many short-term and anonymous historians expressed the possibility of sabotage.
"The town of Walla Walla," this historian wrote, "seemed openly hostile to the 'invading' forces. There were rumors of spying and sabotage on the base. These were based on the assumption that since a large part of the town was German-American, there would be sabotage. This barrack-gossip gained considerable ground when a B-17 piloted by Lt. Jim Sanders of the 337th crashed during an attempted take-off. It was determined upon examination that the wing structure had been tampered with, 2" by 4" wooden beams having been placed in the wings -- mistakenly or otherwise by persons unknown. This was the first of the great rumors to sweep through the group. As with most rumors, this one had a core of truth which soldiers' imaginations built into an incident of major proportion."
In spite of the accidents, it was at Walla Walla where, as Ground Exec. "Sandy" Moffett declared, "we found out that the 96th had the potential of being a 'clicking outfit' as it led all other groups in the Second Air Force in the month's efficiency rating." And indeed, during this September of '42 in Walla Walla, the 96th would set an example which it would repeat throughout training; it would continue to log more hours in the air, more average hours per crew and per airplane, it would drop more bombs and expend more ammunition in practice firing than any other group in the Second Air Force.
And it was during this first full month that the type of leadership from the Commanding Officer down became apparent. This leadership quality was based on the personality of the C.O., Lt. Col. Archie Old Jr. It was not subtle. Its approach was direct and at times grueling. Everything was subordinated to perfect training for combat.
The local newspaper announced the arrival of the new Commander thus:
IS NEW HEAD
OF AIR GROUP
"Recently arrived at Walla Walla Army Air Base from Boise is Lt. Colonel Archie J. Old Jr. who assumes command of the base bombardment group. During the 11 years of his army life, Colonel Old has made rapid strides in the commissioned ranks of the Air Corps.
Following graduation from the University of Texas in 1927 as a Civil Engineer, he became associated with the Texas Highway Department. Choosing the Air Corps as a career, Colonel Old enlisted as a flying cadet in March of 1931 and graduated from Kelly Field on February 26, 1932. His advancement in the Air Corps is marked with the following promotions: First Lieutenant, March 20, 1935, Barksdale Field; Captain, April 16, 1941, McDill Field; Major, February 1, 1942, McDill; and Lt. Col. last July at Gowen Field, Boise."
At Walla Walla, the group began to attract attention from Second Air Force headquarters. Considering the unfinished and crowded state of the air base, the 96th pursued Second Phase Training -- individual crew training supplemented by training as flights and squadrons -- with remarkable dedication. Formation flying came into the picture and aerial gunnery was also emphasized.
For Third Phase Training, the group was ordered to the Army Air Base at Rapid City, South Dakota. The ground echelon departed Walla Walla 30 September by train and the air echelon flew to the new location by squadrons.
Laramie stopover. Mess Sgt. Jack Jacobson (left) en route to Walla Walla from Tampa.