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England Russia Italy Shuttle Mission

by Harry H. Crosby

Harry Crosby, 100th Group Navigation, tells what happened when a conscientious and romantic young flyer wanted to round out his tour of missions. He paid a high price as told in this story, for his promotions to Major.

At one point in the air war, the high command decided that rotating leadership was a waste of training. A command was handed down that anyone with the rank of Major or above could not go home after flying his missions; instead he would be reassigned somewhere in the E.T.O., which usually meant an almost enforced volunteering for a second tour. In my case I was only a Captain but since it was believed, rightly or wrongly, that I knew something about lead navigation the Powers Up there neatly solved the question of how to keep me on duty by grounding me after my twenty-second mission.

When the England – Russia – Italy shuttle mission came along, I had been on the 8th Air Force’s longest mission to the north, Trondheim, Norway, and to the south, the Regensburg shuttle to Africa. Although, I would have preferred to take the longest mission west, to the United States, I wanted to round out my record of being probably the only flyer who went on all three of the truly long ones.

I convinced Tom Jeffrey that I was necessary on the mission. Most importantly, I pointed out that the mission there and back would still not bring my total up to twenty-five and they’d still have me around.

So it was settled. I could go.

All night long, crewmen gathered equipment “to last a week.” Ordnance, Engineering, Armament, and Operations busily prepared for a maximum effort.

What a scramble! Toothbrushes, bug repellent, field rations, an extra blanket, changes of underwear and sox, hurried conversations…”Where is my escape kit? How much money shall I take? Should it be English, American? How much is a ruble? How cold is Russia? Did you hear that Major Revegno, the Engineering Officer, and Captain Bowman, the intelligence Officer, are going? I wonder how these ground officers will feel with feet in the air. How can I get all this junk in one bag? Be sure to have our dogtags. If we get past Germany we still may have to prove ourselves to the Russians. I hope we don’t have to crash land around the Russian lines. I’ve heard that Russians are in a hurry to shoot. What kind of hat should we take?” No chance to get any sleep tonight – too much to do.”

The 0130 briefing was orderly, swift, and with a strange note of festivity perceptible. Besides the usual views of the target, briefings about the group, wing and division rendezvous, and reports of enemy resistance, there were also words to be said about which Russian ranks to be saluted. On the blackboard was a space for the estimated time of our return. Colonel Bennett, the air executive, jokingly inserted July 4 in that space, little realizing how prophetic he was.

Each ship had some particular item to take care of for the group. Some groups carried the engineering kits, some the field rations, others the luggage of the P-51 Mustang pilots who were going to escort us all the way. The plane whose safe arrival was most desired was the one which carried our entire supply of toilet paper.

At take-off time there was a taxi accident, which dashed the hopes of two crews for this jaunt. Naturally, the only officer who spoke Russian was on one of these crews.

We flew the northern route to Germany, climbing northeast to a point above the Friesian Islands, then heading due east as though to southern Denmark. We penetrated the German coast between Flensburg and Bremen. Of course, although we were miles from it, Bremen threw flak and smoke screens all over the place.

As Group Navigator, I flew each time with a different lead crew. On this crew the pilot was Captain Richard Helmick, a nice-looking, quiet, Glendale, California, boy, in a particular hurry to finish up and get home. I think there were a girl and some awfully nice parents involved. The bombardier, Captain Gregory, was one of our squadron Bombardiers, addicted to puns, but with a good record behind him. The Command Pilot was Captain Joe Louis Zeller. I hadn’t known Joe very well before but I found him a good guy, an endless source of entertainment with his old-soldier ability to tell a story well and more or less accurately.

The enlisted men were a good lot. Sgt. Madden, the engineer, was sort of the official number one man. The radio operator was small, competent, peppy Sgt. Kelly. Curled up in the ball turret was Sgt. Methurst, a friendly, gentlemanly boy, anxious to know the Russian people. On every crew there’s an “Oley.” Our Sgt. Olsen was a sturdy blond Scandinavian, the type who always has his own equipment and can help find everybody else’s. The crew had also found another jewel. To help service the planes in Russia, each crew took along a ground crew chief. Ours was Sgt. Picard, who fitted into the crew from the first time he flashed his smile. The fellow who came over the target last (Tail Gunner) was Sgt. Schwope, the brunt of much of the crew’s horseplay.

From the German coast on, the wisecracks subsided. Gunners soured the skies for fighters. If they were friendly we relaxed. By now we were on oxygen and in our heated clothing. With all those wires, if you turn around twice in the same direction you feel as though an octopus has you. There is a maze of interphone cords, oxygen tubes, electric heating lines, and parachute harness all tangled about you. Every fifteen minutes or so I gave a position report: “There’s Kiel off to the left. We’re in the middle of the enemy twin-engine belt. Keep your eyes peeled. “Or: “There’s Brandenburg. We’re fifteen minutes from the I.P. Some P-51’s are due. Watch for them.” Occasionally the bombardier requested an oxygen check and each crewmember called in to let us know we were okay.

During the trip to the target, the most impressive sight was our glimpse of Berlin. As we passed by, we all vocally pitied the poor devils that drew it as their target for the day. There was the usual cloud of flak to wade through, and there’s no rougher job. We saw a few B-24’s go down as their turn came.

Then everything was forgotten. There was the I.P. and we were on the bomb run. The ship ahead fired the proper flares and we relayed the signals back. The bombardier and I strained our eyes for checkpoints into the target. Bomb bay doors came open. The pilot and command pilot fought to get into the best possible formation. The better the formation, the better the bombing pattern and the more destructive. Then too, enemy fighters tend to stray away from a tight formation. If anyone wisecracked now he was told rudely to get off the interphone.

The groups of our wing were in trail, the lead bombardiers synchronizing on the target. The corrections to course were rocky and the pilots found it difficult to keep our squadron in place. There was a tense order every once in a while like “More manifold pressure,” or “Watch number three engine, it’s running hot…”

Then …”Bombs Away!” The bombardier hit the switch. Lights on his instrument panel flashed. The plane jerked upward as the wings were suddenly released from their 6,000-pound burden. A sudden turn to the left, eardrums cracked as we lost altitude to confuse the flak. Bomb bay doors were closed.

The flak, black, ugly, and angry, grew worse. We’d been over these gunners for twenty minutes, and many of the planes were racked by bursts.

The Mustangs were eager for a fight. We could hear them chattering over the radio as they looked for opposition. In eastern Poland they found it. Just as we passed a few miles south of Warsaw, the skies changed. Huge fair-weather cumulus piled up high and awesome. From behind them suddenly careened a flight of enemy fighter’s. ME-109’s!

After seven and a half hours the bomber pilots had relaxed to loose formation, but at the first sight of the enemy they snapped back into position like the snap of a plumb line.

The Mustang pilots yelled with delight and dove after the bogies, ratio about eight to one, P-51’s to ME-109’s. Seven bogies went down and the rest went home.

Visibility cleared as we crossed the Dnieper River, and we saw plenty of evidence that War had been to Russia. From the Polish border to central Russia every hill had a slit trench and every plain, a battlefield.

The trip’s duration was just about the limit of our fuel duration. When we reached Kiev, four planes had to peel off and land. Our maps were unsatisfactory and the radio facility just as bad, so finding our field was difficult. The relief was tremendous when after about eleven hours of flying we landed at our destination.

An American Master Sergeant and a Russian enlisted man met each plane. For all we knew he was a general, so everybody saluted everybody else and shook hands all around. We were gathered up in army trucks, taken to a tent headquarters for interrogation and indoctrination by Colonel Witten, the 13th Wing Commanding Officer. Then we were caravanned to the town where we were quartered and deposited before a battered schoolhouse. Half an hour later we were asleep.

The first day we had a chance to look over the town. We found the people friendly and eager to know us. We found the statures of Lenin and Stalin and the Red banners all over town.

That afternoon a problem developed. German reconnaissance planes droned over the fields. There was little or no antiaircraft protection for our newly constructed fields. Our few Airacobras with Russian pilots were not sufficient defense. So Colonel Witten and Colonel Jeffrey had a brilliant idea. Shortly before dark we took off and flew, low enough to escape the German radar screen, to other airports distant enough to be safe. It was this idea that saved us. That night raiders dropped a flare over the deserted field and bombed under that chandelier for an hour and fifty minutes.

When we landed, darkness prevented our seeing much of Kharkov while we were trucked to our barracks. We did notice that about every mile a gate and a sentry blocked the road. I don’t know what the words meant that flew back and forth between the driver and the guard. But I do know what the word “Stoy!” from the sentry meant, since it proceeded our being brought to an immediately wheel-sliding stop. An American soldier stationed in Russia had told us. “The one word you’ve got to know in Russian is “Stoy!” That means halt, and when you hear it, brother, you freeze! If you move an eyeball the guard sends a bullet either over or through your head, and I don’t think they care which.” So we had exploited the word. When a truck driver delivered us to our plane we’d “Stoy” to stop him. Before we learned to “ed-dee” to get the truck in motion again we improvised an “Un-Stoy,” but it never seemed to work.

When finally we arrived at our barracks, Russian soldiers motioned us to our rooms.

About this time a Russian soldier stalked into our boudoir and started jabbering. Russians had been making a practice of stalking in and out and jabbering, so we didn’t pay too much attention to this fellow till someone shouted, “Hey! He’s talking English!” Sure enough… it wasn’t good English, but I noted the pleased expression that came onto his face when his words began to sift through. We learned later that some five years ago he had studied English in the institution at Stalingrad. Recently, in a conversation around a vodka bottle, he had boasted of his prowess, and immediately he had been selected as the official interpreter. We could see that he felt pretty well bound to deliver, but a bit shaky about the outcome.

With our interpreter we trooped down to their dining hall. We had spaghetti and Spam in sour milk, coffee with sour cream and rocklike sugar, dessert with sour cream, and pictures of Josef Stalin. Afterward we lingered around the table talking about the strange situation that found boys from Iowa, Nebraska, California, Pennsylvania, and all over gathered around a plate of borscht in Russia. Another subject under discussion was the apparent healthiness of Russian women.

The girls who were waiting on our table seemed to think that our remaining there indicated approval of the last item on the menu, a kind of fruit tea, so they started bringing more of it. The tea was made, I diagnosed, by pouring tepid water on dried-apple slices, a fresh berry or two, a pear peeling, and some little tiny seeds. The results tasted like warm water with a slight fruit flavor. And they kept bringing it to us. The routine went something like this: The first cup we drank, the second we struggled over and finally downed; the third cup we poured into the empty cups of the fellows who had left. This all illustrates how hard we were trying to maintain Russo-American friendship.

On the next morning we started looking for a place to shave and clean up, and learned that a huge basin, much like a horse trough, had been filled with water for us. This community project worked satisfactorily for those who didn’t mind ice water. At the trough we saw another evidence of Russian hospitality. Girl soldiers stood by the trough, and cupping their hands, poured water over our hands as we washed. They were everywhere doing for us whatever they were able to find to do. And what a healthy lot they were!

Colonel Witten had established his headquarters at one end of the building, and nearby was a bulletin board, which announced that we were free until 1300 at which time there would be a general meeting for all personnel.

Outside our quarters was a great open yard. Into this yard went the Americans to see the Russians, who were already there to see the Americans. About fifty Russian soldiers were stationed nearby to aid us. Some were truck drivers, cooks, interpreters, and the like, while others were placed there as guards. Many of them were boy-soldiers about twelve years old with rifles longer than they were tall.

Most of Russia was in the army. Boys of ten can carry water and ammunition and in Russia they did it for the army and in uniform. Girls can fight, and in Russia they did it, savagely.

From our own fellows who spoke Russian or Ukrainian and from our interpreters we were hearing strange stories of what total war meant to Russia. We were told that all of the soldiers, men and women, who wore a certain red medal, had been in the Battle of Stalingrad. All the civilians had gone through the forty-five day siege of Kharkov. This part of the country had actually been through two wars, the scorched earth policy of the Russians as they retreated before the Germans and then, eighteen months later, the terrific battles that drove the Germans from Russia. After two years the people were finally getting enough to eat. The clothes most of them wore were still inadequate.

We met one rather plain-looking girl, forgot about her and then looked all over the place to photograph her when we learned her story. Early in the war she had fought in the lines. She had been sent to flying school, become a pilot, and had shot down sixteen German planes. She had parachuted from stricken planes five times. On her last leap something snapped in her leg and she was through flying. Back to the infantry she went, was given a commission and placed in command of a company at Stalingrad. Then she fought behind the German lines as a guerilla. Finally she was given leave, a sort of rest cure. How was she spending it? By doing manual hard labor, swinging a sledge, working with a crew that was building our airport.

Even the boy-soldiers had killed Germans, stopped tanks and been wounded by German grenades. One of the middle-aged women who cleaned the dining room had killed a German soldier molesting her daughter. All the women workers were frontline nurses home on leave.

Russia was the only place yet that I’ve found to be like Hollywood’s version of it. It was just like “Song of Russia” without Robert Taylor. In Russia people actually gather on the street corners and sing. Soldiers, off duty, congregated for singing and dancing. At such times the girl-soldiers become just girls and the result is pairs. Soldiers got up singly to do whirling knee kicking, jumping dances that brought out yelps and “ki-yi’s” from the spectators.

On this particular morning the Russians had quite a show going for us. They did solo dances and a couple of Russian hoedowns and then they paused. They had performed; now they wanted us to entertain. Since no Americans volunteered we just sat in embarrassed silence. Finally an accordion player tried an American fox trot. Some of the Russians men danced with the girls but they were obviously short of men because the couples were mostly girls. They looked beseechingly for more partners and even asked some of our soldiers to dance. At first our boys were a bit shy and refused, but soon couples of Russian-Americans were dancing as though it was done every day.

Russian girls seemed to follow dancing partners quite well though the floor was mud and they all had on heavy army boots. They were all so sturdy and stalwart that when it came to a decision as to whether we were going one way or another the Americans usually just went along. As for me, I was always off balance because of the female anatomy.

I suppose I should come right out with it; If you were to ask ten fellows who made the trip what the most outstanding feature was they saw, I know that eight of them would say, “Russian busts!” They’re tremendous. All through this discourse I have referred discreetly to the fact that Russian girls are healthy. The reality that I have been dodging is that Russian brassieres must start at size 40 and build up from there. For the first two days all the fellows did was observe the sights, and what a job it was to keep from whistling.

At a meeting called by Colonel Jeffrey, we learned we had been fortunate to get away from our original base so that when German raiders destroyed that field our planes were safe. But the other half of our task force had not been so fortunate. They had been blasted by the German bombing. When the Germans left after two hours of bombing and strafing; only three of our bombers we left. The Luftwaffe had almost entirely destroyed a complete combat wing!

It was bad enough to have lost so many planes, but there were other problems. The only fields in Russia long enough for us to lift bombs off were masses of craters.

Since the Germans knew where we were, we couldn’t stay there for long. Sometime or other our small remaining force would have to make a break for it.

While our leaders were deciding what to do, we kept pretty close to headquarters. For one thing, we were restricted to certain parts of Kharkov. We couldn’t see the heavily bombed parts. We couldn’t trade with people. We couldn’t take pictures except near our headquarters.

The Russians are pretty close-mouthed about a number of their secrets. We learned from the Master Sergeants who serviced our planes, that once we Lend-Leased a P-39 to the Russians they immediately modified it and no American was permitted to see it again. Also we were denied entrance to the armored C-47’s the Russians were flying.

In front of our quarters, without benefit of language, our soldiers and the Russians were exchanging souvenirs. Our boys wanted Russian money for their Short-Snorters and the Rooskys wanted cigarettes. The Yanks were trading a package of Luckies, Camels, or what they had, for one ruble. Uptown the Russians would have paid two rubles for one cigarette. Insignia traded about even.

In the late afternoon Colonel Witten walked across the yard with his new find, a satisfactory interpreter. This one was a double-threat. Besides knowing her English – or American, from Brooklyn to the Solid South – she was a mighty cute girl, even if a bit sturdy along Russian lines. When Colonel Witten introduced me to her I was so accustomed to talking about the Russians right before them that I blurted out, “She’s a neat number Colonel.” She floored me with a “Thanks Captain,” reply.

Jr. Lt. Maja Crootz was a gem. From a military angle she was an asset in every way. She knew how to work telephones. She knew all the people connected with Russian and American liaison. People did what she told them to do. She was tireless, efficient, and bustling with initiative. Yes bustling.

And with all of this Maja Crootz was just a nineteen-year-old girl. She was a split personality if ever there was one. She could be a busy soldier for a while, but there were too many good looking, exciting American soldiers around to be that for long, so she would switch into the coyest of femininity at the slightest pretext. In one minute she would show us briskly how she could field strip a rifle, and in the next she would demurely ask one of us to brush off the bench for her. She was a born flirt. She had learned that the word “Brooklyn” in answer to any question would panic her audience, so she said she had learned English in Brooklyn, gone to school in Brooklyn, been born in Brooklyn and so on. She did a lot of good. She increased our vocabularies. She would answer any question when she got to know us. She quite definitely liked to be surrounded by men and no question was too frank. She had been studying English at the University of Moscow in preparation for going into the diplomatic staff. Since she hoped some day to be at Washington, D.C., she took all our addresses and promised to visit us, apparently having the same misconception of the size of the United States that all foreigners have. She was thrilled by dialects. When Captain Bucky Mason trotted out his best Alabama “Hush my mouth and stuff it with yams,” she squealed with delight.

Colonel Witten and Colonel Moller kept us pretty well informed of our situation. At one of the frequent meetings, the two told us that our base would soon be repaired. At another we were informed that communications had been established and it was again possible for us to get bombs and fuel. And then at the final meeting we were alerted for a mission for the following day. We were to leave Kharkov that evening and go the nearby field where our planes were parked, sleep until dawn, then return to main base, and be briefed while our planes were being fueled and loaded with bombs.

Kharkov gave us a grand farewell. All the women who had them wore gaily-colored dresses. Some of them dug up rogue and lipstick. They all hurled roses at our tracks. Little girls gave us bouquets. The entire populace called not merely goodbye, “Do spedanye,” but also Farewell till we meet again, “Poka du solvestra,” if my phonetic spelling is anywhere near correct.

For me that short flight back to our main Russian base was a nightmare. Although I had nearly a thousand hours in the air I still got airsick if I had not eaten properly or if I were not scared stiff. For the millionth time since I joined the Air Corps, I regretted that I hadn’t joined the infantry. I remember that as a cadet I had retched into twenty-six paper sacks in twenty training flights. Why on earth hadn’t I quit then when I had a chance? Airsickness is like seasickness only there are fumes of the engines to help nauseate your and there’s no rail on a plane – only the flak helmets. The flight took forty minutes. I tried to die four times and succeeded in turning inside out twice.

At the base it was evident what an attack we had missed. The runways had been repaired but the field itself was pitted like the side of a colander. All the time we were there the demolition squads were exploring delayed action and dud bombs.

That day we rested. That evening we flew again at low altitude to another town that had an airfield. For supper we had C-rations. Yet that supper clings to my memory. It was cold, so we ate in the waist of the plane. It was dark, so we turned on one little flashlight. Nobody said very much. We would ask for a biscuit or some meat, then sit quietly and eat it. We would see a hand reach into the arc of light. Pick up something and withdraw. There was only breathing, or a quiet word or two. Outside was Russia. Tomorrow was Italy. We were very young. The United States was far away. We had seen so much, fought so long.

Next morning we took off for Italy and bombed a marshalling yard in Poland on the way. There had been one hitch. At taxi time our number three engine cut our completely. For a while it looked as though our hopes for a mission that day were dashed. We should have been disappointed. Actually we all felt a guilty surge of elation. We saw visions of our one single plane being held back a day, then having to got back by the ATC route, maybe to Teheran, Cairo, and Casablanca. There would be hotels, expense money, and good food, a regular tourists’ trip. But Sgt. Picard climbed out and changed a whole bank of sparkplugs in ten minutes, a superhuman feat which gave us plenty of time to catch the formation. I don’t think he understood at all the coolness which greeted him when he crawled back into the plane.

The mission was as uneventful as a mission can be. We hit our target. The flak was bad. We lost no bombers but one plane lost and engine. Capt Mason was on that plane and having a high time. We all heard him call by radio to Colonel Jeffrey’s plane and ask to talk to Major Revegno, our doughty old ex-Marine pilot, now our engineering officer. When Major Revegno answered, Mason said, “Hey, you old coot, you better have your hammer and nails ready. This duck I’m riding is about to fall apart.”

Like all pilots, those in heavy bombardment liked to show off. Just as we crossed the coast, our small force, the representatives of the 8th Air Force in England, really started packing the planes into the best formation they could fly, to impress pilots of the 15th Air Force in Italy. Each wingman poked his wing into his flight leaders waist windows and held it there. Naturally everyone else on the crew was scared stiff, but the pilots were happy.

We landed at the base of a bombardment group that happened to be the one formed back in the States just ahead of ours. I knew most of the old flying personnel who by then had gone home after finishing their tours. But the ground personnel were able to tell us about them and how they had fared.

We stayed there a week. During our stay we swam in the Adriatic, visited numerous coast towns, and went for a ride in a British MTB boat. We flew over Rome and visited Naples. We saw Vesuvius. We saw Naples. We drank Italian wines with Italian girls. We piled into bed at about two in the morning; two hours later we were awakened and told we were flying a mission with the 15th Air Force.

As sleepy as I was, I knew something important was happening to me; I would get another mission. With the one on the way home I would have my twenty-five. Through no fault of mine I would finish my tour and get to go home. I hoped for a milk run.

It was a milk run, and all the 8th Air Force boys joshed the 15th Air Force types that they had it so good. I kept whistling to myself the entire mission, which was so easy we did not even go to altitude and put on our oxygen masks.

All the way back to Thorpe Abbotts I kept rejoicing that my promotion had never gone through. Since I was a Captain and my tour was over, I could go home. When we got to England the White Cliffs never looked so good. When we passed London I told it goodbye. I was on the way home.

When we got back over Thorpe Abbotts Jack Kidd was in the control tower. When he came on the radio I heard his voice. I called out to him, “Jack,” I said excitedly, “I got in an extra mission. I am sorry, but I now have twenty-five. I will have to go home.”

His voice came back clearly, “No, you won’t, Major.”