The major emphasis of 1st phrase training was learning to bomb, which is a complicated process of coordination between bombardier and pilot. The bombardier directs the bombsight which gives directional indications to the pilot and he flies the airplane where the sight indicates. It takes some time to get coordination between the two people, but having been a pilot in the bombardier school and Bob being a bombardier instructor, one bomb run and we had our coordination down pat. We flew the first bombing mission with our crew instructor and he wouldn’t believe we knew exactly what to do and how to do it. After the first run, we started to go for shacks (bull’s-eyes) and making them. The second and third day, we finished our bombing missions required for that phase and set a school record for lowest circular error probability. Of course, we were old pros.
Another flight or two to check instrument flying and night and we had completed our required sorties, but only had 35 of the minimum 50 hours flying time that was required. So for three nights in a row, we were assigned night flights with nothing particular to do but just fly. Since we had a strong desire to stay alive through this old war and maybe a little more moxey than most, we used the time to teach everyone of the crew to fly. At least enough to bring the airplane home if both pilots were hurt or whatever. The men liked this and it helped cement an esprit de corps [A common spirit of comradeship, enthusiasm, and devotion to a cause among the members of a group] into our crew that wouldn’t stop.
Our crew had been complete for weeks with the exception of a navigator and we couldn’t graduate without a navigator. We were held up until a shipment arrived and we got first pick of the group so we could graduate with a class ahead of ours. We were intended to have a ten week course and we finished in four.
The navigator was Orest A. Zorina, a tall, quiet fellow of Russian decent and proud of it. A graduate school teacher, he was not much interested in sports, which made him somewhat different from the rest of the crew. Otherwise, he fit into the team very nicely. He did his job well, but let the rest of us know when he didn’t agree, regardless of rank.
We were notified we were to join the 485th Bomb group being formed at Fairmont, Nebraska. I visited the school commander and requested permission to drive my car and take my family at my own expense, thus saving Uncle Sam the cost of transportation. He agreed if we would make the same time as the train and we therefore, were promised orders allowing us to travel separately. All the rest of the crews were to go on a troop train. Three senior officers had been given this special permission.
When the personnel were briefed for the trip, the commandant announced he would like to see Capt. Jones, Capt. Reeves, and Lt. Bryson separately. We went over into the corner and he gave us our separate orders allowing us to drive. I left the building immediately. Syl was waiting in the car in front of Headquarters and we drove directly to the front gate to leave. When we arrived at the gate, the base Provost Marshall was waiting for me and the other two [officers]. I was ordered to return to headquarters, which I did immediately. It seemed that a young West Point 2nd Lieutenant had overheard the Commander give us our orders and immediately called General Travis, the 2nd Air Force Commander, complaining that we were getting special privileges and he wasn’t. Bull Travis had called the provost marshal to stop us at the gate. The Lt. didn’t get the privileges and neither did we. We were ordered to travel on the troop train and Sybil had to travel alone with the baby.
When we were required to travel by train, it made us the three senior officers and Capt. Reeves became the troop commander. That poor young lieutenant had to travel on the train too. There is around the country, at last communication, an old Air Force colonel who has claimed ever since [that train ride] that he saved my life. He says he kept me from killing that lieutenant. While I was on the train, Sybil found another girl who was going to Nebraska by train and offered her a ride so the two of them drove on Thanksgiving weekend to Nebraska. In Wyoming, they ran into a blizzard and Sybil had never driven in snow before. [This is why Sybil hates the snow.] The girls would have been in real trouble, except for some truck drivers who escorted them all the way to Nebraska. In our family, we came to love truck drivers.
When the family was safely in Nebraska, we rented a one room apartment in a home in Friend, Nebraska about 15 miles from the base. The home belonged to a local banker named Franz and his wonderful wife. Mrs. Franz was always doing things for us. One night I was assigned to fly and it was a miserable, snowy, windy night, but I went to the base just before dark and checked the weather, which was forecasted to get worse, so I released the crew and went home arriving about 8 p.m. Next morning, Mrs. Franz came in and said she couldn’t wait for the baby to wake up to check and see if I had gotten home safely. Syl told her I had not flown and was home in bed by 8 o’clock. “Well!” said Mrs. Franz, “there I was down on my knees until nine o’clock praying for his safety and he was home in bed!”
Just before we left for overseas, she gave me a St. Christopher’s medal. She said she knew I was not Catholic, but would I just keep it in the plane for the Catholic boys. We kept it throughout the war and for years after, until it was stolen from my accident-free car years later.
The flying in Fairmont was mostly formation, putting all the individual crews into a squadron and group unit. We first flew formation in tows and threes and later in whole group formations. We flew formations at night, in weather, and in all sorts of conditions. The aircraft were older model B-24s and not always in very good condition. One day I was flying formation when suddenly, in a turn, my pilot’s seat broke loose and I shot out of the pilot’s cockpit down about a 3 foot drop into the navigator’s compartment.
Fortunately I had a good co-pilot who kept the thing from running into anyone else, even if he did break formation. While I was trying to get unfitted from the seat and get the seat back into place, the group leader got on the radio and was chewing me out for breaking formation.
Another time I was instructing two new pilots in landings and in general, giving them a flight check. It happened, of all days, to be an open house day for the base. As we made the first take-off and began climbing out of the base pattern, Sgt. Harris came crawling up into the cockpit and he looked like a drowned rat. He was saturated from head to toe with hydraulic fluid. He had been in the bombay checking the gear when a hydraulic line broke, spraying all of our hydraulic fluid all over. In the airplane there are always reserve systems, but this had broken at the one place where the systems were common. We also had a mechanical method of putting the [landing] gear down, but this lowered the gear, but wouldn’t lock it. I strained on it, and pried on it, trying to force it into the locked position until I broke the crank right off the bulkhead. When all this failed, I called the tower for instructions. They told me to circle the field and got all the group brass into the tower. They each took turns telling me to do all the same things I had already done, to no avail. Finally they instructed me to fly until I had burned up most of the gasoline, then bring it in and land it. This all took about 8 hours. We had taken off in the early morning, and it was now late afternoon. Finally I got clearance to land and lined up with the runway, but it looked like an Army-Navy football game. Both sides of the runway were crammed with people waiting to see me kill myself.
The [landing] gear on the B-24 folded downward and outward from the wing, so I reasoned that a good hard bump in the right direction might lock the gear. I brought it in a left slip with the right gear low until it smacked the ground and Sgt. Harris shouted it was locked, then I reversed the procedure and bounced the left gear, straightened out the bird and settled smoothly on the runway. I think I disappointed the entire state of Nebraska—I didn’t kill myself.
The organization of the group created considerable antagonism among the various personnel within the squadrons. The original cadre was trained before crew assignments were made and some brand new lieutenants were assigned to the cadre as co-pilots. While they were still cadre training the group commanders promised them positions as operations officers and flight commanders. Then when a large influx of senior officers arrived out of training command, they all ranked many of the cadre personnel and many of the pilots found themselves working for people far junior to themselves. The junior birdmen in our squadron was Jacob Disston of Disston Steel, Co. We ended up with ten different pilots who ranked him but because of his political pull with the group commander, he had a position superior to most of us. To make the situation more galling, when we reached combat, he chickened and refused to fly combat.
My crew developed into a very cohesive group. We played ball together, worked together and trained together. They learned to pilot the plane and I learned to shoot guns and work on the aircraft. At Christmas time, the whole crew came out to our little apartment for dinner and it was a very good meal and a good time was had by all.