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A History of the Valesh Crew – Page 1

A History of the “Big Frank” Valesh Crew – Page 1

by John R. “Dick” Johnson


100th BG Photo Archives

I joined the crew on July 10, 1943, at Walla Walla, Washington. The crews of the Sperry Provisional Group were well into the second phase of training and were apparently complete except for navigators. So, some 37 brand new navigators were sent down from Ephrata, Washington, where we had just reported a day or two before. I signed on with Frank Valesh as I recognized the name from primary flight training at Thunderbird II at Phoenix, Arizona. Frank was in Class 43-C while I was in Class 43-B. I later washed out while in advanced training at La Junta, Colorado. At Walla Walla we flew together to get the feel of the B-17 as a crew but about the only navigation I practiced was in the celestial navigation trainer. There was another crew in that group that was destined to become famous (or infamous) with the 100th — one Russell J. “Pinky” Flack. His navigator was Jack S. Neal who, like me, got his navigator’s wings in Class 43-9 at Hondo, Texas.

From Walla Walla we proceeded to Redmond, Oregon, for third phase training. As best I recall, this consisted of low altitude formation flying, air to air and air to ground gunnery training (one brief session of each), and a simulated attack on the Boeing Plant at Seattle, Washington. Redmond had been a CCC camp originally and while the quarters weren’t too bad, the toilet facilities were quite a way off which was not the handiest of arrangements. There was no mess as such when we got to Redmond. Breakfast would be something like grapefruit, toast and coffee and lunch would be maybe a sandwich and a malt at the post exchange. For dinner we would hit the restaurant in Redmond. The only alcoholic beverage available in the officer’s club was beer and I believe it was Budweiser. I do know it was green. One memorable evening Jack Neal and I finished off most of a fifth of 151 proof rum. Our co-pilot, Johnny Booth, furnished the rum and he and Valesh and Pinky Flack were egging us on. I’m not saying I was sick but it took a long time for my toe nails to grow back. Also at Redmond we were assigned out own airplane, the Boeing built B-17F, Serial No. 42-30715. Frank had less trouble getting that airplane than I had getting two pencils.

Then it was on to Grand Island, Nebraska, to stage for the trip overseas. All the instructors at Redmond were giving us the line about wishing they were going with us. All but one navigator. He had flown a tour with the 8th and told us we were going to the big leagues and there was no way he was going with us. Only honest man in the bunch! The flight was made at night and there were a lot of sick people in the Sperry Provisional Group as the day before take off we had all been given yellow fever shots and a lot of the men had quite a reaction. At Grand Island we turned in our equipment issued by the Air Corps Supply and were given a receipt. Then it was all given back to us without a receipt as it was now expendable. So were we!

We were at Grand Island for about a week and it was dullsville except for one memorable evening. The permanent party people finally enforced the order about our not going into town, so we invited all the girls we had met previously to come out to the base for a party. It was a lovely do ! Two events stand out in my mind. One was the girl with Frank Valesh. She was a dead ringer for Jean Harlow and every so often she would insist in a loud voice that she had never been drunk in her life. To emphasize her point she would then throw her empty glass at the slot machines. The other was our method of clearing the tables whenever they became so cluttered there was no room to set your drink. They were trestle tables and someone would simply kick the legs out from one end. I imagine the permanent party people were glad to see us leave.

Orders dated 3 September 1943 sent us on our way to Great Britain. Our first stop was an unscheduled one at Springfield, Mass., due to radio trouble. While there, Johnny Booth got himself engaged to his childhood sweetheart which earned him a lot of kidding as the entire crew was single. During the stopover we had the opportunity to buy liquor at wholesale prices so the four officers chipped in just about every dime we had to buy thirteen (13) cases of quarts of National Distillers’ products. The gunners were promised their share if they would guard it enroute and they readily agreed. After the radio was repaired we proceeded to Bangor, Maine, our first official stop. I don’t remember much about Bangor, but I believe we spent only one night there.

Our next stop was Goose Bay, Labrador. The most memorable event here involved the gunners. The entire crew had been issued weapons at Grand Island. The officers drew .45 automatics, the flight engineer a Thompson submachine gun, and the balance of the gunners drew .30 caliber carbines. While at Goose Bay, they decided to break in their new weapons by firing at targets set up at the edge of the woods next to where the aircraft was parked. Well, it seems there wasn’t a whole lot of woods there and just on the other side, civilian crews were constructing something or other. The civilians were not amused but to the best of my knowledge there were no casualties and the incident was glossed over.

From Goose Bay we headed for Blue West One, a base in Greenland. Getting there was a bit hairy. First you had to find the correct fiord which was not easy as the clouds were down on the mountain tops. Then you turned up the fiord and sort of felt your way up it. There were no maps available so you flew by your briefing. There were two branch fiords off to your left and you were told not to turn into the first one as it was dead end. When you turned into the second fiord, you dropped the landing gear and looked to the right and there was the runway. You landed up hill and you had to land as the runway was surrounded by mountains and there was no going around. I don’t believe we spent more than one night in Greenland but that was enough. We did feel sorry for the permanent party people. The takeoff was downhill and we noted the tug boat which had the duty of keeping the end of the runway clear of icebergs which continually broke off from the glaciers and floated down the fiord.

The trip to Iceland was made at 500′ due to low clouds and we were briefed to stay out of these clouds due to icing conditions. We were also briefed that German submarines occasionally lurked along our route to shoot down any unwary crews. So, all guns were loaded and manned. I was busy navigating so Zet (2ND LTMAURICE G. ZETLAN) was supposed to keep a sharp watch but I believe he slept most of the way. Anyway, we made it without incident.

Iceland was jammed with aircraft backed up because of bad weather in England. We spent several days and had to sleep on cots packed into the base theater. I do remember going to a little shop where the four of us had some reasonably good coffee and cakes of some kind. And we went to a movie ! It was run by a couple we presumed to be man and wife. He sold tickets (they were reserved seats) and she showed us to our seats. Then he ran the projector and she sold candy, etc.., between reels. The movie was “I Wanted Wings” with Veronica Lake. Since most of the audience was American fly boys I’m afraid we treated it like a comedy. And I remember them turning on all the lights in the base theater at least once every night and calling all B-17 pilots out to turn their aircraft into the wind. The wind really blew in that place.

Then it was on to Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis northwest of Scotland. We were grateful we only spent one night as the food was inedible. I remember being served porridge for breakfast. It was stone cold and they seemed insulted when I asked who had eaten it first. Thank the Lord we had some rations on the plane.

And then on to Ayr in Scotland. We weren’t supposed to leave the base but that didn’t stop us from hitching a ride into the town of Ayr. There we found a splendid pub and a fine time was had by all with the Scots reciting Bobby Burns and Valesh reciting Robert W. Service.

The next day we departed Ayr in flights of varying size and headed for the base to which we thought we were to be assigned. Each flight was led by a crew experienced in navigation in the British Isles. This was fine with me as I was completely confused by the jumble of towns, villages, canals, roads, railroads and streams. We were sent to the 390th B.G at Framlingham and got the impression that was our assignment but when they heard we were fresh from the states we were sent off to the Combat Crew Replacement Center (C.C.R.C.) at Bovingdon. The trip was made by rail and involved changing trains in London. Handling those 13 cases of booze was quite a chore but we made it without breaking or losing a bottle.

Our aircraft, 715, was left with the 390th where it was named “Cincinnati Queen.” It made several missions with the 390th but it’s ultimate fate is unknown to me.

My personal experiences at the C.C.R.C. involved learning the British aids to navigation and how to field strip, clean and reassemble the Browning .50 caliber machine gun. Never did learn how to shoot one.

Orders dated 4 October 1943 sent us to the 94th B.G. along with the crews of Pinky Flack and John Love. We began training with the 94th and figured this was it but Bremen and Munster intervened. I do not have copies of the orders sending us to Thorpe Abbotts and the 100th B.G. but I suppose they were issued. Valesh, Flack (I can still see Major Kidd flinching every time he called that name at briefing) and Love were all assigned to the 351st Sqdn. We were assigned a brand new Boeing built B-17G, serial No. 4231035 and rightly or wrongly, named it “Hang the Expense.” Valesh made the choice and I believe it came from the expression, “Hang the expense, give the canary another seed.” The name and a redheaded girl, naked as a jay-bird, and dribbling green backs from her outstretched hands, were painted on the right side of the nose. The aircraft had the usual chin turret plus one hand held .50 caliber machine gun on the right side of the nose. It also had a flux gate compass, the first one I had ever seen.

We attempted our first mission on 3 November 1943 with Wilhelmshaven as the target. We were flying 035 and our bomb load was 4 – 500# G.P. bombs plus 31 – 100# incendiaries. At 1145 hours at 9,000 feet I noted in my log that the #2 engine oil temperature was way up and the engine was throwing oil. We aborted thinking we were about to lose the engine but it turned out the problem was merely an over filled oil tank. None of us were overjoyed.

We actually flew our first mission on 5 November 1943 with Gelsenkirchen, Germany as the target. As 035 was out for inspection, we drew the Lockheed built B-17F, Serial No. 42-5997 (“Heaven Can Wait”), and frankly it was a pile of junk. The bomb load was 10 – 500# G.P. bombs. We were having trouble keeping up with the formation but after aborting our first mission, we knew we were going to the contest this day. Somehow we got to the target with the group and bombed at 1329 hours from 26,400 feet (-38°). As usual over the Ruhr valley, the flak was thick enough to walk on and both waist gunners collected several pieces as souvenirs. Bud Broyles (S/SGT HERSCHEL H. BROYLES) was hit on the rim of his goggles by one chunk. Paul Carbone (S/SGT PAUL J. CARBONE) noted in is diary that he saw several enemy fighters but none were close enough to shoot at. We saw no friendly fighters although P-47’s were briefed at four different times and Spitfires were briefed to cover the withdrawal. Our cylinder head temperatures were all high and we finally had to shut down #1 and feather the propeller. Upon reaching the enemy coast out we gave up and came home alone.

Mission No.2 came on 7 November 1943 and the target was Duren, Germany. We were flying 035, the bomb load was 42 – 100# incendiaries and we drew the #3 position, 1st element, high squadron. Although the visibility was good, we were over a solid undercast the entire mission. This made it difficult for me as I had no Gee equipment on this mission. Both my log and Paul Carbones’s diary note that the fighter escort was good and that no enemy fighters were seen. We also agreed that the flak was light and inaccurate.

Our third mission was screwed up from the start and things got steadily worse. The date was 13 November and the target was Bremen. We were in 035, the bomb load was 42 – 100# incendiaries and we were assigned the #2 position, 2nd element, high squadron. We missed the formation below the clouds but climbed on up and joined the group at 12,000 feet in the vicinity of Splasher 6. The group was 7 minutes late to Splasher 4 but even then we had to circle to form the Wing. The winds aloft weren’t even close to those forecast. We finally got strung out at 1008 hours (19 minutes late) at 25,500 feet (-47° C) and the contrails were very heavy. At 1030 hours I noted my oxygen gauge was out and that the ball turret gunner, Louis Black (S/SGT LOUIS BLACK, JR.) did not answer the routine oxygen check. The waist gunners advised the turret was turning slowly in one direction so they cut the power cable, cranked the turret around manually and hauled Black out. Paul’s (Carbone) diary notes he was “heavy as hell.” Louis (Black) was unconscious. It seems that somehow his oxygen hose had become disconnected when he test fired his guns. Bud (Broyles) and Paul hauled him to the radio room and plugged him in to the spare oxygen outlet. As Louis started to come around, Paul’s oxygen mask froze and he passed out. The radio operator, Lucky Jordan (T/Sgt Ernst M. Jordan), then put his mask on Paul and as Paul came around Lucky passed out. It was a bit of a mess but all survived. It also pointed out just how poor our personal equipment was in those days. Electrically heated oxygen masks would have prevented much of the problem.

The I.P. looked ok at 1115 hours but we did not open the bomb doors until 1122 hours. We then kept them open until 1134 hours and still did not drop the bombs.

It seems that just about everything had gone wrong on the lead PFF aircraft. The interphone system was out and the navigator was directing the pilot by passing him notes. Then the oxygen system failed and only the pilot, radio operator and PFF navigator had oxygen. This was especially rough on Colonel Harding, our group C.O., who was flying in the lead aircraft as Command Pilot.

I did note one F.W. 190 going down and the pilot bailing out. Also noted two (2) B-24’s going down in flames.

We finally started for home at 1145 hours and the formation was nothing but a gaggle. At 1152 hours we salvoed our bombs into the North Sea. At 1225 hours we were still at 22,400 feet (-39°) and I noted our oxygen was getting low. Finally got down to 15,000 feet and went off oxygen at 1240 hours.

We finally landed at 1405 hours — confused as hell.

Our 4th mission came on 16 November 1943. We were flying 035 and was assigned the #2 position, lead element, high squadron. The bomb load was 5 — 1000# G.P. The target was a plant near Rjuken, Norway, and we were told it ” had something to do with the production of heavy water,” It was a long haul with take off at 0630 hours and landing at 1507 hours.

We missed the group at Splasher 6 but proceeded to Splasher 4 where the group was five (5) minutes late in joining us. No wing formation was briefed and we proceeded in a loose group formation to conserve fuel. At 1055 hours the Norwegian coast was in sight and I noted a B-17 from the 390th B.G. gyrating wildly with what appeared to be a flare and oxygen fire in the cockpit. Finally it leveled off and nine (9) chutes were seen. Then the aircraft went into a dive, then pulled out so violently the bombs ripped off the shackles and plunged through the bomb doors into the sea. The aircraft then climbed a bit, leveled off, and a 10th chute was seen but it was too low and the chute did not have time to fully deploy. Boats were seen putting our from the Norwegian shore and heading for the survivors.

We were ahead of schedule so we made a 360° turn off the Norwegian coast and took a somewhat roundabout route to the I.P. We hit the I.P. on the money and bombed at 1143½ hours, 1½ minutes early. Good hits were observed. This was the only time I actually saw our bombs hit. We also felt the concussion.

The trip home was a long ride and Paul Carbone noted in his diary that we hoped we didn’t have to go to Norway again.

On 23 November 1943, we were briefed to go to Berlin for the first time. Briefing was quite early and there was a chorus of grunts, groans, whistles and cheers when the curtain was pulled back to reveal the target and the route. It was to be a pathfinder mission and the route was straight in and straight out. No fighter escort was briefed but the intelligence types assured us the bad weather would keep the Kraut fighters on the ground. We were flying 035.

The weather at Thorpe Abbotts was terrible with a mixture of snow, sleet and rain coming down. I guess we were eager to go but we knew the odds were against our coming back if the Kraut fighters managed to get up. But, the mission was scrubbed before start engines and the combat crews were called back to the briefing room where Col. Harding chewed us out for lax security. Seems everybody on the base knew we were going to Berlin.

My 5th mission was with a Lt. Griffin (Lt. John T. Griffin) on 26 November 1943 and the target was that old standby, Bremen. Actually, the main target for the 100th B.G. that day was Paris but the 351st Sqdn. was designated as the high squadron for the composite group and was led by Bob Hughes (2ND LT ROBERT L. HUGHES) in 271 with Luckadoo (Capt. John H. Luckadoo) as Command Pilot. We were flying the Boeing built B-17G s/n 231051 (Going Jessies) and were leading the second element.

The mission went pretty much as briefed except that clouds drove us up to 28,500 feet (-55°) by the time we reached the bomb release point. Clouds and smoke prevented our seeing the primary target so the bombs were dumped into the center of the city.

P-47’s were briefed at three different times but my log does not indicate any showing up. No enemy fighters were noted in the log.

Perhaps it was just as well I flew with Griffin as this was the day Valesh rode 035 into Draper’s barn. The story has been told many times and many ways and I am not going into it here.

I flew with Griffin (Lt. John T. Griffin) again on 29 November 1943. Booth (Lt. John E. Booth), Mytko (T/Sgt John Mykto), and Carbone (S/Sgt Paul J. Carbone) from our original crew were also aboard. We were in 051 and we were assigned the #2 position, 3rd element in the high squadron. The target was once again Bremen.

Things went pretty much as briefed but while we were still climbing at 1155 hours I noted that the # 4 engine was running rough, detonating and throwing oil. At 1208 hours Griffin decided to abort while spares were available. At 1220 hours the bombs were salvoed into the North Sea and we landed at 1253 hours.

On 30 November 1943 I was scheduled to fly with Luckadoo (Capt. John H. Luckadoo) on the mission to Solingen. We were flying the Douglas built B-17F, s/n 423307 (Skipper) and were leading the high squadron. We got the squadron formed all ok but in climbing through the overcast from 3,200′ to 10,600′ it was dispersed. Finally got most of it together and arrived at Buncher 8 at the briefed time and altitude but the group was not there. Never did find the group and finally aborted the mission.

I finally got my 6th mission in on 5 December 1943 and our original crew was together again. the target was the Merignac Air Field near Bordeaux, France. We were flying the Boeing built B-17G, s/n 4237800 (Pinky Flack’s (Lt. Russell J. Flack) “Piccadilly Lily II”), the bomb load was 10 x 500# G.P. bombs, and we drew the #2 position, 2nd element, high squadron.

We took off at 0808 hours and formed the group at approximately 2,000′ in the vicinity of the base. At 0835 hours I noted my Gee Box was no longer working. By the time we reached the enemy coast we were over a solid undercast and I was down to navigating strictly by dead reckoning.

The briefed course was followed pretty well until we reached the Bay of Biscay where we had to detour approximately 40 miles to the west to avoid bad weather. The P-38 escort did show up just as briefed but we never did see the P-47’s.

We finally reached the briefed I.P. about 40 minutes late and turned on the bomb run but the clouds were solid in the target area and we could not bomb. At 1245 hours we turned for home and at 1250 hours we lost an engine and had to salvo our bombs into the Bay of Biscay in order to stay with the formation. The bomb doors would not close and John Mytko had to crank them up by hand.

Paul Carbone wrote in his diary that he had a solid cake of ice in his oxygen mask so he had to use the spare mask which he had to hold to his face by hand.

The trip home was more or less as briefed and we landed at 1520 hours.

My 7th mission came on 11 December 1943 and the target was Emden and we were flying the Douglas built B-17F, s/n 423474 (“King Bee”). The bomb load was 10 – 500# G.P. plus 12 – 100# incendiaries and we drew the #3 position, 3rd element, high squadron, composite group.

The mission went more or less as briefed even though it was one of those deals where you took off in the soup, climbed up through the muck and hoped you could find your outfit. Some how the squadrons, groups, and wing formed up and we hit the first control point on the money.

We were scheduled to hit the I.P. at 1212 hours and we made it at 1214 hours even though we were 1,500′ above the briefed altitude of 24,000′. The Krauts had just about every type of fighter in their inventory up and I noted three (3) B-17’s going down from fighter attacks. P-47’s were briefed for the I.P. but none are noted in my log. Bombs were away at 1223 hours but the lead bombardier missed in spite of the fact that the aiming point was clearly visible. Our bomb doors refused to close and at 1308 hours they had to be cranked up by hand.

I wasn’t overly fond of these mixed bomb loads as some brain had figured out that, due to ballistic differences, the high explosive bombs and incendiary bombs would not fall in the same place if released at the same time. So, it was decided that the bombardier would set the intervalometer to release only the high explosive bombs. Then, as the last G.P. bomb was away, the navigator would start his stopwatch while the bombardier reset the intervalometer. After so many seconds had elapsed the navigator would hit the toggle switch to release the incendiaries. Never did find out if it worked or not.

Mission No. 8 came on 13 December 1932. The target was Kiel, we were flying the Boeing built B-17G, s/n 4231066 (John Love’s “Fools Rush In”) and we drew the #3 position, lead element, in the low squadron. I have no record of the bomb load.

The formations were assembled in good order and we left England about as briefed. Noted that the IFF was off, all guns test fired and OK, and that the #2 and #3 engines were taking turns acting up.

We were over a solid undercast in the target area and a blind bombing run was made. The P-51’s showed up in the target area for the very first time but those good old P-38’s were there as usual. Both Paul Carbone’s diary and my log noted that the flak was big, black, thick and accurate.

Both Louis Black and John Booth were sick enroute home and Carbone flew the ball turret.

Mission No. 9 came on 16 December 1943 and the target was Bremen again. We flew 066 and were leading the 2nd element of the lead squadron. Our bomb load was 10 – 500# G.P. plus 12 – 100# incendiaries. A.O. (“Four Mile”) Drummond flew with us as copilot as John Booth was in the hospital.

We took off at 0846 hours and by 1017 hours the air division was forming at 9,200′ which wasn’t bad at all. We started out and then turned back and circled east of The Wash. My log has a question mark as to why. Finally got strung out about 20 minutes late and then when we reached the I.P. north of Bremen we circled some more. Then we started the bomb run, visibility was so bad in the haze the target could not be identified and we bombed the center of the town from 23,200′ (-29°C — warm for Bremen).

Paul Carbone noted in his diary that it was the “heaviest flak I’ve ever seen” and my log confirms it. Also noted that fighters were hitting the group behind us and our gunners reported there (3) FW 190’s going down. The P-47 fighter escort finally showed up but it’s a wonder they found us at all the way we were stooging around.

The weather was so bad over England upon our return the group broke up and all aircraft were on their own to return home. I used Gee to home us to the end of the runway and noted in my log that I was “too busy to keep log” from 1447 hours to 1525 hours. We landed at 1530 hours. I knew you could use Gee to home in to the end of the runway but this was our first time to do it under conditions of very low visibility.

Right now it’s time to digress for a moment and tell a tale on Jack Neal and myself as it happened somewhere along about this time. It seems we skipped a ground school class for navigators as “we knew all about that”. Major Turner, C.O. of the 351st Squadron, thought differently and called us in for a no doubt well deserved chewing out. He then confined us to the base for a week except for “any necessary trips to our washer ladies”. As we started out the door he called us back and asked if we had heard of the party that night for the non-flying enlisted personnel of the squadron. We allowed as to how we had and he said good and to forget about being confined to the base. It seems there had been notices of the party posted in the surrounding communities and that this night there would be trucks at a specified time and location to transport interested girls to and from the party. We were told that each of us would ride in one of the trucks to escort the ladies to the base and at midnight we were to see they were returned to town and we were to be damned sure we returned the same number of ladies we had brought to the base. Nothing was said about them being the same girls. We were to be in Class “A” uniforms and we were to stay out of the way at the party. Jack and I were less than enthusiastic but orders were orders and we were there at the appointed time. Actually, it was a nice do. Our respective ground crews kept us well supplied with beer and everyone was well behaved. Getting the girls on the trucks (and the men off the trucks) was another story but we made it. In fact I took one more girl back to town than I brought to the base. Never did learn if Jack was one short and I do not recall missing any more ground school classes.