MAKE LIKE A TOURIST (Flight to England)
Our newly formed 486th Bomb Group, after completing its training at Davis-Monthan Field, in Tucson, Arizona, were assigned brand new B-24 Liberator Bombers. (Ours had Ser. No. 42-52639 stenciled on the tail). They were fitted with the new nose turrets that were designed to increase the firepower up front. Now, instead of relying on the navigator or bombardier to fire the guns in the nose, a full-time gunner would operate the turret. But it did create a problem as far as the navigators and bombardiers were concerned. The turret took up a lot of space, making it very difficult for them to work together in the cramped space. That, plus the fact that our forward visibility was almost eliminated. But we soon learned to adjust.
Some of the crews decided to name their plane and had it stenciled on the fuselage. Our crew couldn't agree on a name so we ended up by referring to it as, "639" (the last three digits of its serial number). The orders shipping us overseas were dated 11 March 1944 and specified a per diem of seven dollars a day. Our "jumping off" point was, Morrison Field, Florida, where we would be briefed for our flight overseas, and told not to open our sealed orders until we were a couple of hours out. (Just like in the movies). We could hardly wait to find out our destination.
It was a normal takeoff. The city of West Palm Beach was below, and just a few miles to the right we could see Morrison Field. It was to be our last look at good old United States soil for a while. As the city slowly disappeared behind us, we strained our eyes for a last lingering look at "home". Ahead of us was 1 700 miles of water before we would see our next stop, Waller Field, Trinidad. Because of the cramped quarters in the nose, I decided to get a K-ration box and placed it between Fred Towne, our pilot, and Bernie Fishel, our co-pilot, and settled down. Our gunners were all relaxing on the floor in the rear of the plane, trying to make themselves as comfortable as possible.
The big moment finally came and Fred opened our orders. My eyes caught the letters, "U.K." and knew they stood for, "United Kingdom". We were now a part of the Eighth Air Force, based in England. Our orders specified a route taking us to South America and Africa, and then, up to England. Once the suspense of our final destination was behind us we all settled down for the long flight ahead, each of us with our own thoughts for company. Visions of what we had read or heard about England and the war over Europe quickly came to mind. The "shooting war" was getting closer. I decided to keep a journal of our flight. What follows is from that journal:
We no sooner lost sight of the lights behind us when we encountered the expected heavy overcast and an equatorial front. Sheets of rain pounded against the windshield and the plane was bouncing around like a cork on a wave as the two pilots fought the controls to keep it level. We couldn't see our own wing tips and all eyes were on the lookout for other planes in the vicinity. After a few terrifying minutes (it seemed a whole lot longer) we broke into the clear and gave a sigh of relief. Joe gave Fred a new heading for Waller Field, Trinidad. All of us, except Fred, Bernie and Joe (Gallagher), tried to settle down for the night, trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. A bomber floor makes a poor substitute for a nice warm bed.
By dawn we were all chilled and a little stiff and restless. Below us we could spot a few scattered islands. We had flown over Puerto Rico during the night but it was only a spot on the map as far as we were concerned. Cold sandwiches and a thermos bottle of coffee were passed around, which had to suffice for breakfast. Meanwhile, we were on the lookout for Waller Field, which was somewhere ahead of us. Suddenly Joe called up on the intercom and said, "It was about twenty minutes away". We all stared ahead searching for it and soon spotted some land in the distance. The airfield was just an opening carved out of the surrounding jungle. The long white runways were waiting for us as we circled once and landed. It felt good to get out and stretch after our ten hour flight. We gathered our equipment and piled it on the tarmac, and it wasn't long before a truck came out and drove us to Operations. This was to be our home for a few days, and then, off again into the blue. Trinidad was like another world to me. Right out of a storybook or a movie around the corner. This field was operated by the A.T.C. (Air Transport Command) and we used their facilities while there, as well as on our stops along the way. We had our first taste of roughing it here. Our barracks was a long, two-storied building, all screened in, and was partitioned off into small bays with three or four cots to a bay. The first thing that caught my eye was the mosquito netting stretched over each cot. Sleeping under this netting was a new experience for us, but we got used to it after a couple of nights. The Army Post was entirely surrounded by jungle and you only had to walk a few steps from the road before you were instantly swallowed by the underbrush.
We had acquired the habit of checking out the Post Exchange at each stop and went looking for it. It was housed in a building similar to the rest except for the long porch stretched along one side of it. Of course, this P.X. didn't resemble some we had seen back in the States -- but then, one P .X. is like another once you get inside. The usual assortment of articles was there on the shelves and counter. But the native boys behind the counter were a novelty to us. After looking the place over and making a few purchases we went back to our barracks and proceeded to get ready for supper. We then decided to check out the Officer's Club. It consisted of a ping-pong table, some chairs that didn't match, the familiar bar in the corner with a crowd around it, and a table where some men were shooting craps. The bar did a brisk business in fruit juices and cold beer. The popular recording stars, the Andrew Sisters, had a few hit records out at the time, including; "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree", "Cow Cow Boogie", "I'll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time" and, "Rum And Coca Cola" (to name just a few). Believe it or not, this last song was in the nearby jukebox and we couldn't resist the urge to order a rum and coke, as long as we were in Trinidad. It wasn't bad, but I never acquired a taste for rum. I also ran across several old classmates who were on their way to different destinations. Some were going to Africa or Italy, and others, to England. It was great seeing them again and we passed the time away by exchanging stories --- ending up with wishing each other, "good luck".
The base was large and stretched for miles in all directions. One afternoon we took a jeep ride and drove to a natural pool just a couple of miles from the post. The pool was fed by mountain streams settling down to the bottom of a chasm, with a narrow and slippery path leading down to it. After leaving the road and descending a few feet down the path you were in a new and primitive world. All around us were trees and tangled vines. And below, you could hear the water rushing on its way. Wild birds kept up a constant chatter above us and you almost expected to see Tarzan come swinging through the trees as sounds echoed in the distance. We finally reached the bottom. The water was clear and cold and some of the braver fellows stripped to their underwear and were swimming in it, but that wasn't for us. After we had our fill of exploring we trudged up the path again and luckily spotted a truck just leaving for a return trip to the base. So we ran the last few feet to board it.
That evening was spent drinking cold fruit juices and writing letters home. Later, we were scheduled to attend the briefing for the next leg of our journey. We packed our belongings and then decided to get a few hours sleep before taking off for Belem, Brazil. Around midnight we were awakened by an orderly. We pulled on our flying clothes, and sleepily trudged over to the mess hall for a quick breakfast. Needless to say, I wasn't very hungry. Then we hopped a waiting truck to take us to our plane and get ready for takeoff.
About two in the morning, while taxiing down the strip, some of our flight plans blew out of the bomb bay doors and fluttered down the ramp. In the meantime, a tropical storm had approached and sheets of water swept across the field. Riddle, our flight engineer, went out after the papers and we taxied back to the ramp to wait for him. It was futile to think that he could find all those sheets in the dark, especially after they were blown around by our prop wash. All we could do was to wait and see. About half an hour later he came back soaked to the skin, but with most of the wet sheets in his hands. How he found them we'll never know, but we proceeded to sort them out. We got permission to take off again and started to taxi out. Just as we got to the end of the ramp, and all set for takeoff a second time, the storm got worse and we were told to stand by and wait till it slackened. We finally got airborne and began climbing through a deluge. It was, " instruments all the way", to about two thousand feet. The rain was beating a steady tattoo on the windows and the water leaked into the nose area around the front turret. About all that you could see outside was the exhaust from the four engines. Fred and Bernie sure had their hands full that night. Someone's decision to allow us to take off in that tropical storm sure didn't make sense. After what seemed like an eternity, we broke out of the storm and Joe gave Fred the heading for Belem, Brazil. We then settled down the best we could. The weather for the rest of the night was a lot better and the time went by pretty fast.
When daylight came we were flying over the jungles of Brazil. For miles around, in every direction, all you could see was a solid matting of green jungle beneath us. Occasionally we could spot a stream winding its way to the Amazon. We crossed the Amazon River at its mouth, which was many miles wide, where numerous tributaries converged to make one huge mass of water flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. About an hour and a half later we sighted the field outside of Belem and after circling it once, we came in and landed. All eyes were taking in the surroundings and we wondered what was waiting for us. Operations soon sent out a truck and we were taken to our quarters.
We were billeted in a long stone building with a screened-in porch along one side of it. The rooms, small and damp, accommodated two men in a double-decker bunk that was entirely covered by the now familiar mosquito netting. No glass panes in the windows, just a screen to keep out the few insects who were too ignorant to use the front door -- which was usually ajar. There was a latrine and shower for every six rooms and this area seemed to attract most of the mosquitoes, as the water could never be turned off completely. The fact that we were only to be there for a few days helped a lot.
The mess hall was in a building about a hundred yards down the road -- where we encountered our first difficulty. We were waited on by native girls who spoke and understood only a few words of English and the little Spanish I learned back in high school now came in handy. We managed to make ourselves understood and had a pretty good meal. The Officer's Club was four or five buildings away -- and that was where we spent most of our short visit. It was adequate, meaning, "well stocked". The lounge area was decorated with a few large hand-painted murals and furnished with about a dozen cane chairs and a few tables. The cement floor was covered with a rope matting, probably made by the local natives. We soon made ourselves at home and read some of the ancient magazines and newspapers laying around. Sipping a "long cool one", and reading, helped to pass the time away. Every once in awhile, a member of a newly arrived crew would walk in. We were bound to run into them on the way. You'd maybe hear something like, "Joe had an engine change back at Waller", or, "Pete's bombardier got sick and will have to catch up to his crew later" or, "Have you seen 'so and so'? I lost track of him after Morrison." ..........
The time for our departure finally arrived and we decided to try and get a few hours sleep before our briefing. A cool shower and a change of clothing helped a lot. I no sooner had my netting all tucked in, my eyes closed, and my ears attuned to the constant chattering of monkeys and shrill calls of birds, when Fred tapped me on the shoulder and said it was time to get up. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and pulled on my flying suit. We met the rest of the crew outside, had a quick breakfast, and took off for Operations. After getting all the necessary "poop" about winds, altitude, weather, route, checkpoints, etc., we were driven out to our plane.
Andy, our crew chief, was already there. In fact, he had been there for over an hour checking up on old "639". After all, she was his baby and he wanted her in tip top shape. (which was OK by us.) The poor guy was airsick all the way back from Tucson and we still had a long way to go. He would huddle-up as best he could down by the nose wheel and suffer in silence. He also took quite a bit of good-natured kidding about his allergy to flying. But he was a wizard on airplane engines and his knowledge was to come in mighty handy, later on. To us, he was the best crew chief in the squadron. The decision to have the plane's crew chief accompany the crew to England was a wise one. By the time we got there he would know every rivet on the plane. In order to accommodate his presence, our waist gunner, Dave King, was sent over by ship along with the balance of the ground personnel.
After a normal takeoff we climbed on course and settled back. Joe made a few calculations, told Fred to follow the new compass heading and then, he too, took it easy. He was really "on the ball" and we all had a lot of confidence in his navigation. He was soon to prove his worth and gained a well-deserved reputation as a "lead navigator". Bernie, our co-pilot, wanted to go back to the waist so I sat down in his seat. Fred let me handle the controls and I felt like a "hot pilot". Joe happened to look back in our direction through the astrodome and saw me at the controls. He started laughing and called the crew on intercom telling them to put their chutes on, their "crazy bombardier" was flying the plane. I fixed them --- by quickly dropping the nose and just as quickly pulled it up again. You should have heard what I heard over the intercom. Man oh man! Good clean fun. We were flying contact, so we did not have to worry too much about getting off course. Joe had all the checkpoints marked. I don't remember seeing any other planes in the sky around us, which might account why Fred let me take over. I never asked. He let me fly on instruments for a while and then he'd pull some surprises on me like throwing it out of trim, or "feathering" an inboard engine. Boy, that's what I hated to see. I always loved the sight of all four fans moving. This sensation never left me, especially when we had to come home on only two engines one day in the future. After awhile, Bernie decided to fly again so I gave him back his seat and got a large case of K-rations, put it down between the two pilots and became a "co-co- pilot". Every once in awhile you could overhear the men in back joking over the intercom. We had been flying for a few hours so I decided to stretch my legs and went back to the waist. The men were all huddled on the floor, where they had some blankets, quilts, and fur-lined flying clothes all around. They also had enough food to stock a small P.X.; candy, cookies, sandwiches, thermos bottles, and magazines were all over the place. You'd think that we were going on a picnic. I munched on some candy and kidded them about being a lot of excess baggage on the trip (as if I wasn't, also, --- but we won't get into that). I decided to go back to the tail turret and check out the scenery from there. Flying backwards was a weird feeling. I would much rather, "see where I was going", than, "see where I had been". Time went by and before you knew it, Joe called and said that Forteleza was just ahead so I went back to the nose to get a look. There it was, with those "A" shaped runways waiting for us. As we got closer we could begin to make out some buildings below. After receiving our landing instructions, we circled once, and came in for a landing.
Forteleza, Brazil proved to be the best place we stopped at during the whole trip. We were billeted in tents but we didn't mind that at all when night came. It had a wooden floor and we rolled up the side flaps to let the cool breeze in. It was a very clean base and a welcome change after the wet time we spent at Belem. As usual, we explored the PX and even bought some boots. They sure came in handy when we got to Africa. Almost everybody was walking around in new orange-colored boots.
The "0" Club was in a modern brick building with a long verandah along one side of it. It was lined with canvas chairs to sprawl in with a cool drink in your hand. The verandah overlooked the runway and we would sit and watch the planes as they took off for Africa, knowing that in a short time we would soon be doing the same, ourselves. It was on an instance like that, when we were confronted by a civilian accompanied by an officer. The civilian had a movie camera in his hand. He was on an assignment, traveling around the different bases making movies for the Special Services Division. He asked for our help and we were only too happy to try our hand at movie acting. First, he took some close-ups of us as we walked in and out of the Club. We were then driven over to the Base Chapel for more shots. After thanking us for our cooperation he wished us good luck and went on his way. Our brief venture into film-land was over and we had something to kid about for days. The time just flew by and before we realized it we were being briefed for the next leg of our journey. Our next stop was to be Dakar, Africa.
We had a clear night for our takeoff but we were warned to expect a big storm a few hours out. Their forecast was accurate because it turned out to be one to remember. The driving rain, again leaking around the nose turret, threatened to shatter the windows. "St. Elmo's Fire" was dancing around the props. It was an eerie sight. The static electricity in the air caused sparks to jump from Joe's lead pencil as he worked. He could not take any celestial readings so we just had to "sweat it out". Fred and Bernie had quite a night at the controls handling the plane as it bounced around. Dakar was eagerly looked forward to. What a night!
When we finally did get to Dakar, all agreed that it looked its best at 1 0,000 feet. The remnants of the French Foreign Legion were all over the place, including pillboxes and slit trenches. The tarpaper shacks we were assigned to were filthy, both inside and out and had to be sprayed often to get rid of the insects. So this was Africa? The base was overrun with natives as black as the ace of spades. Some, wearing the uniform of a French soldier, also wore red fezzes on their heads and carried long black rifles with fixed bayonets. You'd think that there was a war on.
We were soon mobbed by natives who were selling knives and small leather pocket books. Joe bought an evil-smelling knife and had to keep it hidden during the remainder of the trip because we threatened to bury it, more than once. They also had "jujus" (good luck pieces) for sale. You were supposed to hang it around your neck. The sales talk they used was, "You buy juju, no die Boom-Boom". This sort of sales pitch proved quite effective and it sold a few. Looking back, I'm sort of sorry that I didn't buy one --just as a reminder of Africa. We had to keep our pants tucked in our new boots and also rubbed some smelly lotion on our hands and faces to keep the ever-present insects away. That night we watched something that I'll never forget. Around ten o'clock, the door at one end of the barrack opened and a procession of natives marched in. It would have made a Sphinx laugh out loud. Five natives, of five different shapes and sizes marched in --- each one armed with a spray gun. They solemnly marched up one side of the room and down the other, and then out the door. As they sprayed, their eyes never wandered. It was almost as if they were in a trance. We had an uncomfortable night and were happy to leave the place the next morning. Our hope was that Marrakech was a little more civilized and not as hot as Dakar.
We took off for Marrakech about 9:00 in the morning. Our route was over mountains and desert. On our way, we ran into a sand storm that lasted for a couple of hours. It was so intense that some of the paint on our fuselage was rubbed off by it. The ground below was completely obscured and we had quite a job searching for some of the checkpoints that Joe plotted on his map. To help Joe, I sat in the nose turret with a map on my lap. We did spot an occasional village below but they were not on our maps. They were easy to spot because of the small patches of green on the side of the hills. The houses all appeared to be enclosed by walls. It was very desolate country below us and I sure wouldn't want to be forced down there. We finally spotted the air base ahead of us and proceeded to let down. This stop was to be our last landing in Africa. And after Dakar, we expected almost anything from Africa -- and we weren't disappointed.
Marrakech was a good-sized city and from the air we could see a few large buildings below. Later, we learned that some of them were part of the walled-in section of the city, the Medinah. The runway was an extra- long one with steel matting on it to accommodate the heavy traffic it received. We could see many A.T.C. planes; C-46's, C47's and C-S4's. This was the jumping-off spot for a lot of places such as; England, Northeastern Africa, and Italy. The A.T.C. had facilities for the planes being ferried to the different combat theaters. We saw fighters, medium and heavy bombers, troop carriers, and even a small, L-S Piper Cub (used as an observation plane.) And all along the runway, in small groups of three or four, were the native workers. Each one had a shovel or some kind of implement to keep the strips as smooth as humanly possible. Their long filthy robes were plastered to their even filthier bodies by the prop wash. The flying cinders and dirt formed a cloud around them. But they emerged from it undisturbed and just a bit dirtier, if that was possible. They waved at us and showed their toothy grins and we, in turn, waved back and laughed out loud. It was hard to believe that we were clear on the other side of the world, and on our way to -- what? Fred taxied to the end of the runway and we parked at an empty hardstand. Soon, all of us clambered out of the plane and waited for transportation while our eyes became adjusted to the new scenery. A truck finally arrived and took us to Operations where we checked in and were assigned our quarters.
We picked a "lemon" again quite a few crews reported in before we did and were assigned to brick barracks. They were not too clean, but a lot better than the tent we drew. We checked out five blankets apiece and went looking for our tent. They all looked alike, except for a small, numbered-card hanging in front. An electric light socket' hung from the pole in the middle of the tent but there wasn't a bulb in it. So -- we did the same thing as someone else had done, and that was to scout around for an empty tent and "presto" -- a light bulb. The tents were set in straight rows with a boardwalk along the front entrances. Over in the corner of the area was our community latrine in a small screened-in building. I happened to be unfortunate enough to be occupying a stall in one when the local sanitary department came around. Without so much as a glance at me he proceeded to pour something in the opening near me -- and then he dropped a match down the hole. I saw some smoke coming out and left in a "Helleva" hurry, so he could finish his job. For all I know, he may not have seen me in the darkened room. I've often wondered if he had ever burned that building down. And come to think of it -- it did look sort of new at that.
I was surprised how cold it could get in Africa at night. That first night, we used one of our five wafer-thin blankets for a sheet, another one was rolled up for a pillow, and the remaining three were used for covers. The next night I dispensed with the sheet and pillow. We were also hit with a heavy rainstorm that night and that's how we found out that our tent leaked. We had to move our bunks around so that the water wouldn't pour down on us. Things could have been worse -- but I couldn't figure out how. The next morning we were all tired and stiff but the hot sun helped.
Close to our tent area was a stockade for Italian prisoners of war. They had been captured by the French Army. If it was any consolation to these prisoners, we lived in the same kind of tents, but we could come and go as we pleased -- and best of all, we would only be here for a few days at the most. Their guards were tall French native troops carrying their rifles with fixed-bayonets, and almost seemed to be waiting for trouble among the prisoners. I watched as the Italians milled around their tents mumbling to one other. A few ambled over to the wire fence and offered us souvenirs for sale. Some of them made model airplanes, ashtrays, or carved wooden figures. It was obvious that a lot of time must have been spent on some of the items. They were especially eager for American cigarettes. The guards would not allow any loitering along the barbed wire fence and prodded them back to their tents with their rifles. The sight of men being held prisoner by other men was a new experience for me and it suddenly brought the war a lot closer.
Across the way was our mess hall. It was in a fort-like building with long rows of tables and benches inside. The chow line ran along one wall and we were served by more Italian prisoners of war. These men must have been model prisoners. They all seemed so happy to serve us and I even caught an occasional Italian phrase or two. I regretted never taking the time to learn to speak Italian while growing up. This would have been a great opportunity to use it. I don't remember what we ate except that it was all thrown in a heap and did not taste like Mom's cooking. Outside the mess hall were huge garbage cans and you would always see small native boys sticking their heads and arms in and pulling out scraps of food. I stood and watched a couple of them one day. After one had a large pile of food in a container he would promptly take it over to an older native, usually sitting in the shade of a nearby tree with his chin resting on his crossed knees. The old man would first take his share, and then the boy would eat what was left before going back to refill the can. While he was gone the old man would bum cigarettes from us. The kids did their share of "bumming", too.
Once in awhile you would spot a whole family out for a walk. Some were wearing discarded G.I. clothing. Their footwear ranged from rope matting or old discarded army shoes, to slices of automobile tires tied to their feet with strips of cloth. Each one seemed to have his or her own escort of flies who followed them as they went on their way. They were quite a sight with their gaily-colored robes. I saw one native wearing a mattress-cover tied in the middle with a G.I. necktie. I don't know how he got it. Another thing that I noticed when the families went out for their strolls was that the men always walked in the lead, and then, about three or four steps behind them trailed the women and children. They all seemed friendly -- never failing to smile at us, and at the same time, hold out their hands for a cigarette.
The P.X. resembled an old abandoned fort of some kind. It turned out to be the coolest place on the base. They sold beer for only a couple of hours each day and there was always a long line waiting for it. It was too long a line for me; besides, you had to have your own container. I saw men fill up milk cans, tomato cans, and even steel helmets. Fred and I bought our rationed amount of candy and gum and looked around while we cooled off. Then, we left to explore the base. We discovered the Post Theater located above a workshop in a hangar and decided to check it out. In order to keep out the daylight they had to cover the few windows in the musty room. Between the heat, smell of human flesh, hordes of flies, and the constant breaking down of the projector, we decided we'd "had it", so we left in the middle of the movie and continued with our exploring.
We walked down to the flight line and looked over the different planes parked all over. When we came across a B-25, Fred excitedly rushed over to inspect it up close. -recalling the many hours he had flown one. Only this model was a newer version -- armed with a cannon in the nose. We agreed that it was a sweet-looking plane compared to the flying boxcar we flew. But it always got us there and back, and that's where it pays off in the end. It was almost dusk so we decided to get back, eat dinner and then, hit the sack early. Joe and Bernie had gone into town and we wanted to get the "poop" before we went in to see it for ourselves. Unfortunately, Fred and I never did get in to see Marrakech. It was declared "off limits" after the M.P.'s caught a drunken Major trying to sneak into the Medinah, all wrapped up in a sheet (I guess, to resemble the native robes). The Medinah was a special area where military personnel were forbidden to enter. The description of it reminded me of the scene with Charles Boyer in the movie about the "Casbah". So we had to settle for Joe and Bernie's stories and description of Marrakech. They told us how the natives swamped them with souvenirs and offered to buy wristwatches or fountain pens from the Americans. They would always ask for Parker 51 's and had quite a business going for themselves. The war didn't seem to be a hardship for them at all. Joe also described the old dilapidated automobiles that were pulled by little donkeys. There were shoeshine boys galore and many a sly remark about a choice selection of girls on the edge of town. Joe said that you had to keep your eye on the young kids for fear of pickpockets. (Or maybe it was lice.) All in all, it must have been quite an experience at that. Fred and I were always sorry that we missed out on the chance to see Marrakech up close. The next day, after breakfast, we went exploring again and Bernie took his camera along. I wish that I had also taken mine. We wandered through some olive groves and came across a lonely M.P. who seemed so glad to talk to us. He was stationed at a small gate, and on the other side of the fence was an encampment of natives. This must be where they lived, but I think they spent most of their time on the base. We spotted a shallow drainage canal flowing by and watched as a young boy got off his tired- looking donkey and they both stooped over for a drink. The water didn't look too clean to me and I was almost surprised to see the donkey drink it. He must have been pretty thirsty. As for the boy --- he didn't seem to hesitate at all. Bernie then took a picture of Fred and a native standing close by. The old man was quite pleased and eager to have his picture taken. I still have a copy of that snapshot in my scrapbook.
We continued on with our exploration and came across a huge, shell of a building. I don't know what it was originally intended for, but now it was just a haven for weeds and mosquitoes. There was a large pool of standing- water in the courtyard area. It must have been a reservoir at one time but the water it now held was stagnant. We paused long enough to toss a few pebbles in it and continued on our way. It wasn't too far from here where we ran across some scattered remains of a plane that didn't quite make the high fence. We could see pieces of metal, Plexiglas and a few empty .50 caliber shells laying around. The area was pretty well cleaned up, and there wasn't too much left. I spotted a small oval-shaped item on the ground and picked it up, assuming that it came off the plane. It must have been attached to the landing gear door of a Glenn Martin B26 Bomber -- as it had the part name and number printed on it. I put it in my pocket and it is now included in my scrapbook. We had no idea of when the accident took place. The condition of the area left the impression that it probably happened some time ago.
On the way back to our camp area we came across a large encampment of Italian prisoners. These men were captured by the British. What a contrast. They were allowed much more freedom than those captured by the French, and even boasted of neatly tended vegetable gardens. They had their own little community with a leader in charge. Their "cousins" back at the base sure had it a lot different. It made me stop and think about the, "fortunes of war".
It was good to get back to our tent and just lay down in our sacks and rest. As I lay there, I tried to sort out memories of all the strange places we had seen since we left the States. Geography classes, back in grammar school, didn't prepare me too well. Africa was just another place we read about and then tried to remember enough of it to pass an exam on the subject. Seeing it with our own eyes and absorbing the scenery and people was so much more interesting and rewarding. Nothing can beat personal experience.
We knew it wouldn't be too long before we'd be on our way to England. The "shooting" war was getting closer and as it turned out, the next morning we did brief for the last leg of our journey. Our takeoff was almost routine by now. The course to Wales, England was over water and we had to skirt around Portugal. We were now in the war zone and cautioned to be on the alert for German subs in the area. It was an anxious flight, including a few nervous minutes when a strange plane was seen behind us. We breathed a sigh of relief when he was finally swallowed up in the distance. Flying over water was a lot different than looking down at green jungles, or sandy desert. The hours seemed to drag on. Joe did his usual excellent job of navigation and in a few hours we sighted England ahead of us. It wouldn't be too long before we'd reach our final destination.
We landed at Valley, Wales on a cold damp day. The air chilled me to the bone and I soon missed that warm African sunshine. Our quarters were in a large discarded theater, now converted to a barracks. That first night in England was a disappointment to us. We were given only two light blankets apiece and had to sleep on a mattress they called "biscuits". It consisted of three cushions held in position by a sheet and they kept separating during the night, as I would slip down between them. Needless to say, we got very little sleep that night. The plumbing in the small bathroom we all shared was rather primitive when compared to American standards. And shaving with cold water didn't help my face any. We managed to get through it -- as I knew we would. After all -- there was a war on.
Our bunks were arranged in a large open area (no privacy) and we soon learned that not all the occupants were Americans. We met some R.A.F. crewmembers who were there for reassignment and eagerly listened to some of their stories. They shared first- hand descriptions of what we might expect in the future. One group told us that they had just completed a tour of combat, bombing Germany and France. They were now to be reassigned to anti-sub duty over the Atlantic and were looking forward to just searching for a submarine instead of being shot at. Their description of the flak over Germany and enemy fighters gave us food for thought. I'm sure that each of us had a lot to think about that night. I know that I did.
Early the next morning we took off for our own base at Sudbury (in Suffolk County). It was only a couple of hours away. The English countryside below us was a huge quilt of land with small towns or villages jutting out of the fog. What struck me first was that almost every inch of the land below us was utilized. No barren spots could be seen anywhere. Each little village had its own church and steeple in the center, with all streets converging on it. We could see airfields all over the place. Heavy bomber bases for B-17's and B-24's; as well as the British Halifax's and Short Sterling's -- Medium bombers, like B-26's and A-20's -- and all the different Fighters; P-51 's, 47's, 38's and the famous, Spitfires, to name just a few. Planes, planes, all over the place. It almost resembled one giant airfield.
We also saw our first barrage balloons. Huge blimps anchored to the ground, with long cables hanging from them. They were tethered over industrial areas and along the coastline. We learned later that the long cables were to protect them from strafing by low-flying planes -- as well as to detonate the "buzz bombs" sent over by the Germans in the near future. All in all, I tried to take in as much of this new scenery as I could. This was to be our, "home away from home", for a while, and I couldn't wait to land and see it up close.
At last, we finally arrived at Station 174, just outside of a small town called, Sudbury. This was, the end of the line for us. The administrative and ground personnel had arrived months ago to set it up. Our base, as well as others, were recently transferred to the Eighth by the R.A.F. in preparation for the accelerated offense of Germany and planned invasion of France. After reporting in and filling out the necessary forms we were directed to our living quarters located a short distance from the field. Our eyes were busy taking in the new scenery and surroundings and we were surprised to see small homes located close by, with an occasional civilian waving back at us. It was quite a contrast to our bases back in the States. The truck finally stopped in front of a Nissen hut (our new home) and we couldn't wait to get inside and settle down and prepare for what was ahead. It wouldn't be too long before Uncle Sam would be collecting on his investment.
John Albanese 833rd Bombardier/Navigator
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