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Group History

B17 - Crew Number 13


 

 

 

 

by John Massol


 


THESE PAGES ABOUT B-17 CREW NUMBER 13 WERE PUT TOGETHER IN 1991. THERE WELL MAY BE ERRORS SINCE THE ACTUAL EVENTS WERE IN 1943 AND 1944.. JOHN MASSOL

 The crew was put together during July and August 1943 at Moses Lake, Washington. Training included bombing with practice bombs, night flying, air to ground gunnery and learning to work together as a team. Moses Lake had one good feature, very long and wide runways. They may have been intended for very long range bomber flights from there to Japan. No planes had been built for this however. Plane maintenance was very poor.

We went to Kearney, Nebraska, August 11, 1943.  This order released us from Bomb 396 to 393 at the new station. Travel was by train. Sgt. McCartney was not on this order. He probably joined us at Kearney.

This was an excellent base. More bombing, not enough formation work. Not enough high altitude flying because of a lack of oxygen. It may have been at Kearney that we went through the high altitude chamber, to about 30,000 feet. Training at both of these bases was not as good as it should have been. In the combat group in England we found that later crews had better training. I think there were two fatal crashes at Kearney. After a very hairy night celestial navigation flight, we were sent home in October 1943 for a two weeks overseas leave.

We returned to Kearney and went by pullman train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. This was  giant base for processing for overseas shipment. More ground school, survival at sea (jumping from two stories up with a cork life-jacket into a swimming pool; hold the jacket down with care or you will break your neck). Nights were spent in New York City, etc., learning how not to be choir boys.

November 15, 1944, we went aboard the Queen Mary, at dock #61. About 10,000 troops of all kinds. We were told that if anyone went overboard, not to bother mentioning it as the ship would stop for nothing. On a previous trip when they had a British cruiser escort, the Mary hit the cruiser broadside and kept going.

You wore a tag and had to stay in a designated part of the ship.

Four days and eighteen hours later we anchored in the Firth of Clyde at Grenock, Scotland. We went ashore by lighter and took a train to a replacement depot at Tilshead, England.

This was no garden spot. Officer had to wear class A uniforms and carry a mess kit to meals. While standing in the mud with rain pelting down. Our radio operator came down with pneumonia.

As I recall, we had two orientation flights with an experienced pilot as co-pilot and five more flights with our own co-pilot to learn to fly in 21 plane formations. Weather was terrible. I remember going around a church on one of these flights; we were in the back of the low squadron. …

ORIGINAL CREW MEMBERS

Stern, R. Edward, Bombardier, District of Columbia. He had about as tough a tour of duty as you can have without getting holes in your skin.

On probably his first flight in bombardier school, the pilot got lost and was running out of gas. He ordered the cadets to bail out and tried to land the plane. It crashed and he was killed.

Before our crew was operational, he flew his first mission probably early January, 1944 with a pilot by the name of Drummond. The ball turret gunner died of lack of oxygen and I think another man was wounded and Stern provided first-aid. Drummond did finish his tour.

Stern flew about 12 missions with us and then was sent to lead bombardier’s school.

His next mission was  May 24, 1944 to Berlin with a pilot by the name of Geary who was starting is second tour. They were shot down, along with eight other planes from the group. The civilians were going to do serious harm to Stern but the German AF people rescued him. I think all the crew parachuted relatively safely. Stern wound up in POW camp near Frankfurt. Interrogations and living conditions were grim. They were marched out of the camp January 27, 1945 and finally arrived back in Allied hands May 10, 1945. See Stern’s account of all this in two books, Contrails and The Story of the Century. He has his own business in Virginia and is semi-retired.

King, Edward D. Jr. Navigator, Texas

He also flew about 12 missions with us and was moved to Group to become a Lead Navigator. After returning to the United States from England, he accepted a commission in the regular Air Force. Then to Alaska, some routine assignments, Command and Staff College and to Japan. After that, to Military Airlift Command at Scott AFB and then to Washington DC for duty within J-4. Most assignments were in Staff or Command. Retired January 31, 1971 as a Colonel.

Granger, Harold D. Co-Pilot, Michigan

Our crew had two missions in by February 3, 1944. We were supposed to go on leave however, Granger was called to fly Formation Control Officer for Colonel Harding. With five minutes instructions on the use of the tail guns and heated suit that did not fit, he had a busy time. When the fighters hit, he found that his guns would only fire one shot at time. The suit unplugged itself from the electrical system. The group lost three planes.

February 29, 1944,our crew had six missions in, Massol was in the hospital with a bum sinus. Monrad took over as pilot.

May 20, 1944, our 26th mission. Captain Geary flew with us as Command Pilot. Granger put flak vests on the floor between the seats and hoped for the best. The mission was recalled after we were over Europe.  

He finished his tour June 4, 1944 and married an English girl. He worked as Assistant Operations Officer for both the 351st and Group. He also went on flights over Europe after VE - Day when ground personnel were taken to see what had been accomplished by the bombing.

October 1945, he got a flight on a 94th Bomber Group B-17 that was going back to the USA. They lost an engine between Brazil and Puerto Rico and landed on Trinidad to get a new engine. He was released from the service in November, 1945. He stayed in the reserves and was a Lt. Colonel when he retired and lives in Florida.

Massol, John F. Pilot, Pennsylvania

Finished our tour June 7, 1944. Stayed in England as Squadron Assistant Operations Officer. Checked out new crews and slow timed engines. October 21, 1944 left the base for Scotland and a few day later got a ride on a civilian DC-4 back to the USA. After leave and marriage was sent to Randolph/ Brooks for TB 25 instructor training. The alternate might have been target towing. Instructed at Douglas in Arizona and then made Squadron CO. Reverted to inactive June 1945. About mid 1970’s became a professional loafer with a sideline in photography.

Westley, William T.,  Engineer, New York

He operated the top turret and was considered top kick for the crew. Took care of transferring gasoline as required. On one mission the bomb bay doors would not open electrically. The pilot had to open them with his emergency release. Afterwards Westley had to go into the bomb bay … at 25,000 feet and temperature way below zero and hand crank them up. During this time we took a hit by flak and it seemed as if he would be blown out. He was not but it was close. Another time we had to shut off all electricity because of gasoline fumes n the plane as the tanks were severely hit. He and possibly someone else hand cranked the landing gear and flaps down for the landing. After twelve missions he was grounded for medical reasons. He did finish a tour, but I do not know the date. He died sometime in the mid 1970’s.

Spengler, Asa J., Radio Operator and Radio Room Gunner, Ohio

May 19, 1944, a Berlin trip. Eventual damage to plane included a new wing, two engines, repaired vertical fin, new gas tanks, repaired oxygen system …. Granger hooked his oxygen system up to the pilots, whose system was out. Radio room set on fire, as well as an engine earlier. Spengler moved from his usual position on the bomb run to look into the bomb bay to be sure all bombs had released. As he did so flak came through where he had been moments ago. It grazed him. If he had not moved he probably would have been killed. He completed his tour June 5, 1944. After returning to the USA he was with ATC and flew to India, Brazil, Ascension Island, Israel, Guam, Casa Blanca, Algeria, Tripoli, Egypt. He retired in Florida.

Willams, Winfred C., Ball Turret, Connecticut

The ball is not a great place to view as war from. He flew with us for while, then missed a mission and was broken in rank. The memory is dim, but he did finish a tour on October 17, 1944.

McCartney, Oliver N.,  Waist Gunner, Indiana.

Memory is pretty dim here too. He was working in Indiana when he died in 1984. He completed a tour on June 5, 1944.

Roberts, James M., Waist Gunner, Texas. The memory is very dim here. He left the crew rather early; there was some confusion about his performance. He probably did finish a tour. In 1991 he located Spengler and called him from Florida. Roberts stayed in the service and retired as a Sergeant Major.

Garmon, Newman E.,  Tail Gunner, Alabama.  He was always where he was supposed to be and when. Rather quiet. He finished a tour on June 5, 1944 and died some years ago.

THOSE WERE THE ORIGINAL MEMBERS OF THE CREW. THE FOLLOWING ARE MEN WHO FILLED IN LATER.

Dittbenner, Silvester E.,  Bombardier.

He took over after Stern went to lead bombardier school. I do not recall how many missions he flew with us. He was later shot down with another crew. I think we had two other bombardiers for one mission each.

Bonitz, George E., Navigator, New York.

He took over sometime after King went to Group. Seems to me that we had one or two other navigators in between including one on his first mission and wall all balled up. In any event, Bonitz did a great job and he went to rest camp with us on May 5, 1944, as did Dittbenner. The crew had 24 missions when Bonitz was shot down in August, 1944. He was fortunate to be taken by the French and stayed with them untl they drove the Germans out.

Coulam, Chester P., Engineer, Massachusetts.

Came from Helmick’s crew. He flew 4 or 5 missions as engineer and then flew as togglier after Dittbenner was taken off as bombardier. Finished tour on July 13, 1944.

Madden, George,  Engineer.

Also came from the Helmick crew and flew up to  5 missions with us and is credited with two enemy fighters. He was the replacement for Coulam. Finished tour on July 13,  1944.

Leirich, Jerome F.,  Co-Pilot, Minnesota.

He flew with me on June 7, 1944 for what was the last mission for both of us. He did most of his flying with the Richard Helmick crew.

Reneau, William L.,  Waist Gunner, North Carolina.

He  replaced Roberts and flew most of his missions with us as he finished on June 5, 1944. He went overseas with Lacy and was lucky to be shifted to our crew as Lacy was shot down. He died in 1989.

Our plane, FEVER BEAVER, was in hardstand #13. The plane there before us was called HARD LUCK.

FEAVER BEAVER became our plane on February 1, 1944 and was new plane. We flew it several times but made mission #3 with it on February 13, 1944 to a Noball target.

The Beaver had 125 missions on it when the war ended. This was close to a record number. In a picture taken at that time it was quite scruffy looking. It flew back to the US.

Flights in England:

  • 30 Combat Missions
  • 27 Missions briefed – some included getting in the air
  • 25 Training, etc.
  • 82 Total

Addendum

When Ed Stern got his wings and bar as a bombardier he surprised to be sent to Navigator school as a student officer. He was told he was going to the Pacific, “Oh my goodness,” or some such remark, all that water. He managed to get that changed to Europe. That is how he wound up on our crew. When we came together as crew in Moses Lake it seemed to me that he knew a lot about navigation but I assumed it had been part of his bombardier training. It was only years later that I found out that in fact he was also a qualified navigator.

When he and King were taken off the crew and sent to special school I had the happy thought that we could become a lead crew. In any event we did not.

Geary, with a complete tour under his belt. Our CO had asked me to evaluate him the morning he was assigned as our Co-Pilot. Later I said that he should be grounded as in my opinion he had all the combat he needed for a while. It appears I was correct.

At Moses Lake it dawned on me that while I was in command of a B-17, I had never been in charge of anything in my life. Flying the plane, yes, command no.  About our third flight, at night I told the crew to take their regular positions and start getting used to them. Prior to this we had pretty much been getting acquainted. The Engineer came into the cockpit and told me that the ball gunner refused to get in the ball. I got up and started back through the plane and wondered what to do next. Fortunately I had tried the various locations before this and simply got in the ball and stayed there for twenty minutes by my watch while talking to various crew members on the Interphone. Got out, went back to the front and the ball gunner was stuck, he got in. I think this happenstance somehow told the crew to do as told. At any rate that was the end of any arguments!

This addendum is, of course, after thoughts and is written four years later.