Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter 28

The winter was cold and lots of snow fell making flying and driving very hazardous, but it went all too soon. In February, new combat airplanes started to arrive and I was assigned one of the very first.  I had to sign an issue slip for one B-24 #448 valued at $298,000. Our crew really worked to make her an outstanding ship.  They cleaned and polished and tuned the engine, checked the turrets and guns and equipment of all kinds. Then in February, the entire wing was ordered to Lincoln Air Force base in Lincoln, Nebraska for final overseas phasing. The planes were again inspected and the crews briefed and given combat clothing and overseas shots and all kinds of things. I got into a big fight with the inspectors over the wearing of non-regulations under garments which I refused to change. It took the higher officer to convince them everything didn’t go by the books. So my garments stayed.
We had rented a rook in the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln for my family to stay and there my first son took his first steps. Finally, Mom St. Jeor came to go back west with Syl.
On the night of 4 March 1944, Lincoln had a big snow storm. The next morning we reported to the base before daylight, received our orders, filed our clearance and prepared to start a long series of flights overseas. Our orders were not to be opened until we were in the air, so we didn’t know our destination. As we taxied out to take off, the outboard props were biting into the snow, piled on the side of taxiway. The take off was eventful and after being airborne, we opened the orders. They read, “Land at Miami, Florida, Morrison Field. That afternoon we were swimming on a balmy 80 degree day. Because we were combat crews, enroute overseas, we were not allowed off base. Still we enjoyed the beautiful palms and tropical flowers, in what had been mid-winter, the same morning in Nebraska.

           Our stay in Florida was short and the next day we were first off for our next destination still unknown. After opening our orders, in flight, we were headed for Berenquin Field, Trinidad. In route, we flew past Cuba, Haite, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. As we approached the Virgin Islands, we decided we didn’t have enough gasoline to reach Trinidad. So we decided to land at the Air Force emergency field on St. Croix. We touched down very close to the approach end of the runway because we knew the runway was only 4,300 feet long. But as we approached the other end, we were still going at a good clip. I called, “Loop it left!” and both George and I jammed left rudder and left brake. The big monster sharply pivoted about and headed back down the runway, just in time to avoid running into the fence at the end of the runway. The B-24 has an extremely long gear and they are not all that sturdy, but they held together. We came to a complete stop, but only because of superior crew coordination between the co-pilot and men.
While I was busy getting gas and further clearance, the crew pooled their money and ran next door and bought a case of scotch, for about a ¼ the American prices. In a hour, we were back into the air and completed the trip to Trinidad.
As we approached the field, we were given landing instructions. After another aircraft called in, we were told to clear the pattern until the other ship had landed. Finally on the ground, we were told that there was a very important person (VIP) in the other aircraft. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President of the United States.
We were told we wouldn’t leave until the second day so we could have a good crew rest so we obtained a jeep from the motor pool and went to Macqueripe Beach to swim the next day. It was one of the most beautiful places in the world and before the war was a famous Caribbean vacation spot for the rich. The beach is of snow-white sand. The water is a Caribbean blue as only Caribbean can be blue. The beach is only about 100 yards long and at one end a river runs into the ocean. At each end of the narrow beach, two huge cliffs 200 feet high extend up at a narrow angle for several miles. The cliffs are capped with a thick carpet of dark green tropical jungle. The immediate area behind the beach is stair stepped up to about the level of the cliff tops and there sits the beautiful Macqueripe Country Club. During the war, it had been taken over by the Navy and had become their Officers’ Club and barracks.
During the afternoon, we met some Navy officers swimming on the beach and they invited us to go up to the club and eat with them. So we dressed up in the only uniforms we had, tropical suntans with short sleeves and open necks, and went to the club to eat. It was late afternoon so we put off ordering food until dinnertime, but were thoroughly enjoying the beautiful faculties and view. As evening came, we noticed all the navy officers appearing in full white formal uniforms, but we had been invited so we didn’t worry much. Suddenly, the place became quiet and everyone stood at attention, which we promptly jointed. There was a flurry of movement at the inside entrance and in walked Eleanor Roosevelt, accompanied by all the Navy brass in the Atlantic.
Mrs. Roosevelt looked about the room and spotted us in our grubby suntans amidst all the Navy whites and headed straight for our table. When she approached, of course we all popped to attention, but she told us to sit down and, taking a spare chair, sat down at the table with us. We talked for about 10 minutes or so and she commented how nice it was that the Navy and the Air Force could be so friendly and both enjoy the club house. The look from the Navy brass was not friendly, nor were we right at that moment enjoying it.
           After she left, we enjoyed our dinner with what bravado we could muster and excused ourselves and headed back to Berenquin Field. It made a short stay in Trinidad a most memorable occasion.

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