Bob Beatson and Harry Cruver
Bob Beatson of Upper Malboro, MD attended high school as a boy in Savannah, Georgia in 1936. Over half a century later on May 13, 1996, he returned to Savannah as a man with his good friend and fellow Eighth Air Force veteran Harry Cruver of Falls Church. VA. to attend the emotional dedication of the Mighty Eighth Heritage Museum. For both men, their pilgrimage to the site of the Eighth’s founding in 1942 was a homecoming, truly, as the song of the war put it, a “Sentimental Journey.”
Thousands of aging veterans from across the country flocked to Savannah, driving from hometowns in Maine to Texas to California, reuniting to dedicate the new museum, which honors one of the most famous and accomplished organizations of the Second World War.
Formed on 28 January 1942 on Savannah’s Bull Street and commanded by General Jimmy Doolittle, among others. “The Mighty Eighth” led the strategic bombing campaign against Hitler’s Fortress Europe. They flew from English airfields, bombing in broad daylight while their partners in the British Royal Air Force bombed at night. The Eighth was the largest air force in the history of aviation and over 350,000 men served with it in World War Two alone. 26,000 airmen were killed in action, 9,000 bombers shot down and 28,000 prisoners of war were captured by the Germans. At one point in May 1943, the casualty rate for combat airmen in the Eighth approached eighty-two percent. And yet, said Air Force General Lewis Lyle, who was instrumental in creating the new museum (and for whom the rotunda is named). “They were cocky and they were good, and they never faltered.” Hollywood fell in love with the Eighth, immortalizing it over the decades in movies ranging from the 1949 Gregory Peck classic “Twelve O’Clock High” to 1990’s “Memphis Belle” Sir Winston Churchill would say of these men. “They never flinched nor failed, and it is to their devotion that in no small measure we owe our absolute victory.
The expected crowd of 3,000 was not only met, but exceeded as veterans and their families packed the impressive new 90,000 square-foot museum, located in Pooler, a suburb of Savannah. The museum was closed to the public that first day to give a “sneak preview” to the veterans for whom it was built. Tears, smiles, drink and memories flowed freely at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication Monday morning. The past linked hands with the present as a modern Air Force Color Guard, some members in their teens, stood side by side with World War Two veterans in their seventies, gray but proud, and wearing their original 50 year-old uniforms. Together they raised the American Flag for the first time over the museum as newspaper and television cameras clicked and whirred, the only sound in the respected silence.
Close to the flagpole stood Dean Caputo, 39, of Mechanicsville, MD, and his friend Paul Chambers of Covington, GA, 24, in authentic World War Two uniforms. While both men were not even born until long after the era they are active members of the Eighth Air Force veterans’ associations in their respective states and had come to pay their respects to the 26,000 men of the Eighth who fell in a long-ago war. Caputo had driven thirteen hours, nonstop, from his Maryland home to be there.
Overhead a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and P-51 Mustang fighter, both restored to pristine condition circled the museum and tipped their wings in a solemn tribute. At one point the large crowd gasped audibly as the B-17 approached the museum breaking out of dull gray clouds to soar into brilliant sunlight.
Inside, thousands of veterans, their families, and retired and active Air Force brass packed the impressive rotunda and exhibits. Sisters Connie Spates of Opelika, Alabama and Kim Stanley of La Grange, Georgia, their brother John Weaver, and mother Francis Weaver came together to honor their late father and husband, Staff Sergeant Tyre Weaver, who is featured prominently in a large exhibit, and was the center of the most incredible stories of the entire war.
While on a mission to Hanover, Germany on 26 July 1943, Weaver’s Flying Fortress bomber was hit by a German shell burst. The pilot’s skull was split open and crazed and in shock he locked his arms around the ship’s controls. Co-Pilot John Morgan, from his seat wrestled with the pilot for control of the ship for over two hours until he was able to pull the ship back into formation. He was unable to call for help from the other crew members because the aircraft’s intercom had been shot out. Morgan restrained the injured pilot, flew the ship back to England, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. Meanwhile Tyre Weaver and three other crew members were hit or unconscious from lack of oxygen. Weaver, the bomber’s top turret gunner was hit by the same shell burst that nearly decapitated the pilot. He was severely wounded n the am and shoulder, and his arm was nearly severed. Realizing that he would bleed to death before the ship could reach England, Weaver asked his fellow crew members, including right waist gunner Gene Pointe of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, who came to the museum with the Weaver family to pay his respects, to put his parachute under his one good arm and throw him out of the plane over Germany. He hoped to be found and treated by his German captors.
They did so and incredibly, Weaver survived, returning home to his family after years in a German POW camp. His story was featured in newspaper and radio accounts across the country, from comic strips to “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” and was stolen by Hollywood to be used -- without credit to the Weaver family -- in films from “Twelve O’Clock High (1949) to Memphis Belle” (1990).
Veterans and their families crowded around the many celebrities of the Eighth, from Robert Morgan, pilot of the Memphis Belle, whose last mission was the subject of two films, to General Paul Tibbets, who flew a B-29 Superfortress named “Enola Gay” to Hiroshima, Japan one August afternoon in 1945, and ended the war with absolute victory for the Allies.
While all the celebrities, pomp and circumstance were impressive, the real story of the “Mighty Eighth” can be told through the personal experiences of Washington area locals Beatson and Cruver, who exemplify the quiet heroism of the men of the World War Two generation.
Bob Beatson, 73, enlisted in the Regular Army n January 1941, hoping to gain admission to West Point. He served on the ground with the Infantry for two years, and was promoted from buck Private to Sergeant (perhaps the youngest in the small peace time Army a the time) in less than a year, at the age of 18.
After Pearl Harbor he transferred to the Army Air Corps as an Aviation Cadet in the summer of 1942. He received his wings as a Navigator at Kelly Field, Texas on 22 April 1943, and was assigned to the 577th Bomb Squadron, 392nd Bomb Group (“The Crusaders”) of the Eighth Air Force, flying out of the American Air Base at Wendling, England 80 miles northeast of London.
Lt. Bestson served as a navigator on a B-24 Liberator bomber. During the war and ever since the “B-Two Dozen”, as he fondly calls it, was overshadowed by the glamorous B_17 Flying Fortress. “The Queen of the Skies” and darling of the media, then and now. Ironically, Beatson notes with pride, the Liberator flew farther, faster, and could carry more bombs to German targets than the Fortress, her more glamorous “big sister”.
In the summer of 1943 he entered the air war over Europe. At the time, the men of the Eighth Air Force were suffering brutal losses. Before his tour of duty had even began, with a mission to Abbeville, France (Home of a crack German fighter group known as the “The Yellow Nosed Kids” so called because of the yellow colored spinners on their propellers), Beatson asked a cynical old combat veteran the odds of his surviving to complete the required tour of twenty-five missions. Today he vividly recalls the response, “Four percent of American airmen were being lost on each mission,” he was told. But, the man reasoned, “Four percent times twenty-five missions is a hundred percent, so you’ll never make it home -- better to take your .45 (automatic pistol), go behind the barracks and blow your brains out.”
This was before Beatson had flown his first mission. Incredibly he managed to finish the required tour of twenty-five missions -- but not without cost. After one raid on Bremen, Germany in late November 1943, four out of the eight bunks in Beatson’s hut were empty. Four men who lived there, all friends of his, had been lost that day.
At that point Bob Beatson had done his duty and hoped to return to the United States - but the Air Force stepped in, raising the number of required missions from 25 to 30. For the men of the Mighty Eighth, the odds of death, injury, or capture were mounting.
On his twenty-eighth mission to “Big B” (Berlin), Beatson’s ship was attacked head-on by German fighters. Beatson, at his navigator’s station in the nose of the B-24 was hit by a German 20mm cannon shell that ripped into his chest, left side, thigh, and leg.
Meanwhile one of the waist gunners had also been hit, a fire started inside the Liberator, and the pilot was forced to pullout of formation, which had been the damaged bomber’s best defense. The pilot gave the crew a choice -- they could try to land in neutral Switzerland, where they could sit out the war as internees and guests of the Swiss Government and enjoy, according to GI gossip of the time, “free love, steaks, and ice cream” or risk nursing the crippled bomber back to England alone.
The crew to a man voted to try and make it home. Because the pilot’s instruments had been shot out, Beatson, although wounded, remained at his post, relaying vital information to the pilot and continued to perform his duties as ship’s navigator. His blood dripped onto the aircraft’s floor and bombsight, freezing in the air which could reach sixty below zero at altitude. Today he recalls, “I will always remember the color of frozen blood.” His own..
The ship made it back to England and was met on the ground by an ambulance. Beatson would spend a week on the hospital recovering from his wounds. Offered the chance to take an “R & R” vacation at a rehabilitation center or “flak shack”, he chose to resume flying and voluntarily flew two more missions with his stitches still in. He completed “Number Thirty” and his tour of duty, on 08 May 1944, exactly a year before VE-Day. For his actions in the air over Berlin on 29 April 1944, Lt. Beatson was recommended for the Silver Star and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross -- his second.
Today (1998) Beatson is very active in veteran’s affairs and recently completed a term as President of the National Capital Area Chapter, Eighth Air Force Historical Society, The former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent also cherishes his membership in the Tuskeegee Airmen, a unique honor bestowed upon him for his longtime support, involvement, and friendship with the elite group of America’s first black fighter pilots. He wore his Tuskeegee Airman insignia proudly over his heart throughout the museum's festivities and was thrilled to see the “Black Eagles” represented in the museum's displays, pointing them out to the Mayor of Savannah.
While proud of his association and service, Beatson keeps it all in perspective, remembering and honoring the 26,000 men of the “Mighty Eighth” who never made it home. In 1946, while attending Georgetown University, he visited his sister, Catherine, a Lt. in the Army Nurse Corps who attended who worked in a veterans hospital in Atlantic City, NJ. He entered one ward for paraplegics, and struck up a conversation with a patient and fellow combat veteran. Beatson paused before shaking the man’s hand, then realized that he had none, and no arms - he had lost both of them in the war. Swapping stories, Beatson mentioned that he had entered the air war over Europe in August 1943, and was told by the injured veteran, “Hell -- you were there when it was rough!”
(Bob Beatson was never a member of the 100th, physically that is, but he is held in high esteem by it’s members, being recognized by them as a peer. He fails to mention the fact he is one of only a handful of people to be rated on the B-24 as Pilot and Navigator. When Bob returned to the states after completing his combat tour he completed flight training and became a qualified B-24 pilot. He was preparing to return to combat when the Germans and Japanese surrendered. The 100th considers it an Air Force assignment mistake that kept him from their ranks.) pw/100th historian
Traveling with Beatson from the DC area, and proud to be at the dedication ceremonies was his good friend Colonel Harry F. Cruver of Falls Church, VA. Cruver not only flew with, but shortly after the war commanded, the legendary 100th Bomb Group, forever known among airmen as “The Bloody Hundredth” for the horrendous casualties it suffered. At the museum's dedication and over drinks at the many parties, receptions and reunions that followed many veterans of the 100th in attendance still expressed amazement fifty years on that somehow, they survived. It wasn’t just that losses were high in the 100th; other outfits could say that. But it was the way the men were lost. On one mission to Munster, Germany, thirteen bombers went down; twelve were lost to Germany fighters -- one-hundred twenty men lost in minutes. Writer Philip Kaplan has noted. “In human terms this loss equals two thirds of the casualties suffered by the entire Royal Air Force Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain over a three month period -- but this time the losses were inflicted in a matter of minutes.” Ben Smith, a radio operator, would write of replacement aircrews, “We fervently prayed not to be sent to the 100th.” One legend of the war claims that during an air battle a crippled B-17 of the 100th lowered it’s landing gear, a universal sign of surrender, to a circling German fighter. As the Messerschmitt came closer, presumably to escort the American back to Germany and captivity, a gunner on the Fortress shot him down. Because of this, the story goes, an enraged Hermann Goering (Chief of the German Air Force) swore personal vengeance on the “Bloody Hundredth”, and ordered his fighter pilots to single out the bombers with the “Square D” on their tails for special treatment.
Other vets of the 100th, like Bill Hoffman of Cut N’ Shoot, Texas, a gunner who was thrown into combat after just five days of training to serve in Colonel Cruver’s 351st Squadron, recalls the legend of “The Man Who Came to Dinner” -- a replacement pilot who arrived at the 100th’s base at Thorpe Abbotts, England late one afternoon, ate a hurried evening meal, flew his first mission the next morning -- and was lost, shot down before he had time to unpack.
Ironically, while service in the 100th was dreaded in 1943, today it is a badge of honor. Harry Cruver’s very presence at the museum, along with his fellow members of the “Bloody Hundredth”, is a memorial in itself to their fallen friends. An American Legion Magazine article by Kenneth Kinney noted the stunned reaction among World War Two veterans when one of them “Says he was in the 100th” The respect for this man will fairly permeate the air. For the rest of the men realize they are conversing with a museum piece - ex-pilot, bombardier, navigator, or gunner who flew with the Bloody Hundredth -- and lived to tell about it.
Harry Cruver received his officer’s commission through the ROTC program at the University of Wisconsin and, like his friend Bob Beatson, spent two years in the Infantry before transferring, as a Lieutenant, to the Army Air Corps in 1940. He finished flight training in August 1941. His superior skill as a pilot was quickly recognized, and he rose in rank, assigned to the Army Air Force Training Command in the United States. As a Major, he commanded the Basic Flying Training Center at Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, preparing new pilots for the fierce combat of the European Theater of Operations, known as the “Big Leagues of air fighting.” He completed B-17 transition at Lockbourne Army Airfield, near Columbus, Ohio, and was assigned to overseas combat duty with the 100th Bombardment Group (H), Eighth Air Force, Thorpe Abbotts, England.
As Commanding Officer of the 100th 351st Squadron, Harry Cruver flew 28 combat missions with 184 hours of combat time, and often led vast formations of bombers to their targets. His friend, Harry Crosby, the 100th’s Group Navigator who attended the opening ceremonies of the museum, described a mission to Merseburg, Germany, on 31 March 1945 in his acclaimed WWII memoir A Wing and a Prayer:
Fifty miles from the intercept point, the German defenses start throwing flak at us.
“Control to Command”
“Two planes in the high group just got it.”
“Count the chutes.”
“None, Sir. Both planes blew up. There is debris all over the sky.”
“This”, says Command Pilot Harry Cruver, “is one hell of a way to make a living.”
On 18 March 1945, Cruver led and incredible 1.329 heavy bomber - over 13,000 men - on the Bloody Hundredth’s last mission to Berlin. Towards the end of the war, he and the 100th flew mercy missions, dropping over 35 tons of food and medicine to starving Dutch civilians in Operation Manna. After VE-Day he was named Commanding Officer of the 100th and directed joyful flights from Austria to the Cathedral City of Chartes, France which returned repatriated Allied prisoners of war and displaced civilians to their homes. He also flew the little known ”Cooks Tours” of Europe, in which, at the direction of 8th Air Force Headquarters, non-flying personnel were crammed into B-17’s, flown over the Continent and shown the results of their hard work -- Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” reduced to rubble in less than three years.
Of all the honors he received with the 100th, Harry Cruver is proudest of the Commendation his Squadron, the 351st, received from General Earle Partridge, Commanding Officer of the Third Air Division. The award noted that, during one period the men under Colonel Cruver’s command had flown sixth-six missions with zero loses - planes or crew members. At the same time 202 men were lost in the other three Squadrons comprising the Group.
Cruver remains very active in veteran’s affairs, not only with the 100th Bomb Group veterans association, but also, like his close friend Bob Beatson, the National Capital Area Chapter of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, for which he serves as Vice-President. In September, 1995 he was instrumental in arranging a memorial plaque to the “Bloody Hundredth” which was placed in Arlington National Cemetery. He particularly enjoys doing extensive research to meticulously assemble histories of the combat crews which he led, and passed out many folders to old friends during the parties that accompanied the museum’s festivities. The folders contained precise information on each crew’s mission, with names, dates, places, times, photos and maps, and the present day whereabouts of each man surviving. He had completed more than sixty crew histories so far and hasn’t given a thought to stopping.
The words of Bill Carleton, the Engineering Officer of Harry’s 351st Bomb Squadron, could serve as an epitaph not only for the men of the “Mighty Eighth” but for all who served during the war years and perhaps explain why so many came, from so far away, to Savannah in May, 1996.
Carleton is the 100th’s most elegant speaker.
“All wars are senseless, and yet World War II was unavoidable and just. We gained victory not necessarily through superior intellect or strength, but rather through the will to win, and the knowledge that we were in the right. Like all human endeavors, we were fraught with frustration, and at time saddled with stupidity, but the love of man the love of our country brought forth accomplishments and sacrifices beyond man’s own comprehension.”