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Group History

William B. Kennedy - Memories

Memories of Thorpe Abbotts

by William B. Kennedy (22 Oct 2002)

My intention was to never revisit World War Two. Then, on October l, 2002, I discovered the 100th Bomb Group Foundation website. On the message board was a request from Craig Carlin for information about his father, Joseph T. Carlin. Joe was navigator on the crew on which I was pilot. We were operational from mid-June, 1944 to the middle of October 1944.

I responded to Craig on the message board and also sent him an email. He came back immediately, said he would put his father and me in contact, and requested as much information as possible about our tour of duty with the 100th.

What follows won't be a recitation of missions, targets, or fighter attacks. Many crews had a much rougher time than we did, and their exploits have been well documented. Instead, I will relate a few incidents and make a few observations, which may lend color to that experience. If published on the website, few 100th veterans will be reading this. There isn’t that many of us left. But hopefully there will be lots of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews visiting the website. This is written for them.

During our tour at Thorpe Abbots, I didn't keep a diary, take notes, or include narratives in letters home. So, what follows are excerpts from a giant, 58-year leap into a dimly lit past.

To the charge of factual inaccuracy, I plead old age and a poor memory. To the charge of trying to tell a good story, I plead guilty.

GETTING THERE

Having completed crew training at Avon Park, Florida in May, we were transferred to Hunter Field; Savannah, Georgia. This was a big depot full of new aircraft. We were assigned a shiny, brand new B-17G to ferry to the ETO. Parked next to it was the first Douglas A-26 I had ever seen. What a beautiful airplane! In the Korean War it was designated B-26, the designation for the Martin Marauder twin-engine bomber during World War 2.

We test-flew our airplane and then took off for Grenier Field; Manchester, New Hampshire. I don't remember anything unusual about this leg.

From Grenier, we headed for Goose Bay, Labrador. That's when it got interesting. On the north side of the St. Lawrence River there was solid overcast. We began to have icing problems. Unable to climb above the overcast, we tried to find holes to get under it and finally did, hugging the rough terrain. We were very close to the magnetic North Pole, and you can imagine the problems this and our ice-avoidance maneuvers created for our navigator, Joe Carlin. Joe was able to get us close enough to Goose Bay to pick up the radio homing station on the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder, also called "Bird Dog" because it pointed) and we were able to follow the needle to our destination.

Now we had a couple of over water legs and it was nice to know that Joe had trained at a Pan American contract school in Florida and had lots of celestial navigation experience.

Taking off from Goose Bay, we were building rime ice on the wings before we cleared the pattern. We also experienced carburetor icing on this leg. Further along in the flight we were able to get above the weather and Joe obtained a celestial fix, which got us to the southern tip of Greenland. There we turned and paralleled the coast until we reached Tuna Fjord.

An overcast had settled in Tuna Fjord as we turned and started up it. It was like flying in a tunnel. We avoided the iceberg in the middle of the final approach and landed at a field called Bluie West 8. There was one runway. It ran uphill toward the base of the glacier. You landed uphill and took off downhill, no matter what the wind direction.

For the last leg, we reversed our course and returned to the southern tip of Greenland. From there we proceeded in good weather to Prestwick, Scotland. Before landfall we were met and inspected by a picket plane, a Mosquito as I recall. This was a very fast twin-engine British plane made of laminated wood.

Arriving at Prestwick, we were met in the parking area by a supply officer. He gave me a receipt that read something like this:

1 - Type B-17G Aircraft--------------------------------------$250,000

I lost the receipt years ago.

IRON PANTS

Shortly after we joined the 100th, the group went on a shuttle mission. Being a new crew, we were not selected for the mission. Instead, we were assigned temporary duty with a neighboring group.

One day when I was in the mess hall, a burly, dark-haired man came in. There was an immediate hush. This brigadier general wore those riding britches type pants with leggings. There was a grommet in his cap instead of the 50-mission crush we all sported. I think he wore a Sam Brown belt. He went through the chow line, then sat down by himself at a table in the back of the hall. As quietly as I could, I asked the guy next to me, "Who is that?"

Just as quietly he replied, "Iron Pants LeMay."

Shortly after that, General LeMay left the 3rd Air Division to take over the 20th Air Force for the B-29 assault on Japan.

SIGHTSEEING THE FALAISE GAP

I doubt that it was a mission planning error because courses to and from the target were designed to follow "flak-free" corridors.

Returning from one mission (I don't remember which), I heard our navigator, Joe Carlin, say something on the intercom like, "----, the ----- is taking us over the Falaise Gap!" ( Not his exact words.) In the Gap were bottled up thousands of German troops. Their armor and vehicles jammed the roads, looking like a maze of dashed lines reaching in all directions.

The group had already begun the return descent, making us more vulnerable to fire from the ground. We had been flying tight on the right wing of an element lead plane, but when I heard Joe's warning, I moved out a little to give the Germans more empty air to shoot at. Soon, they turned up everything that could reach us and cut loose.

An 88mm shell burst at our altitude close to the tail of the element lead, just about where we had been positioned. Had we not moved, we could have taken serious damage. As it was, the tail assembly of the element lead was damaged. But they made it home.

I don't remember about their tail gunner. Hope he was OK.

A SMALL DECISION OVER SCHWEINFURT

We used to say that Schweinfurt was famous for making ball bearings and flak. This was not that historic first mission to Schweinfurt but a later one: July 19, 1944.

On the way to the target one engine began to have those small surges in rpm that warn of a forthcoming runaway prop. It self-controlled OK and I hoped to keep it in service until the bomb run had been completed. But shortly after starting the bomb run, there was a larger surge of rpm and the replacement co-pilot called "runaway prop," and hit the feathering button. Too late now to control it by partial injections with the button. We shut the engine down.

We could have dropped our bombs short of the target in order to have a better chance of keeping up, but decided to sacrifice altitude for airspeed and gradually fall back just outside the bomber line. By doing this our bombardier, "Lefty" Robison, was able to drop from just below and behind the last group and put our load where it belonged.

Now we were alone and the sole target of a battery of 88s. We twisted and turned our way out of the area, with the ack ack explosions twisting and turning with us but, fortunately, 180 degrees out of phase. We finally cleared the area with no serious damage.

With the bomber line out of sight, Joe Carlin, our navigator, gave us a heading and we proceeded homeward, using all the power we felt the remaining three engines could safely deliver. A little friend came alongside and accompanied us for a few minutes. It was very comforting to have him there. As the 100th formation reached Thorpe Abbots we caught it and were able to land with the other planes.

An interesting side note: Many years later I met a German-American citizen who, as a youth, lived in Schweinfurt. His father worked in the ball bearing factory, and also commanded a flak battery. The son asked if the gunnery was good. I said it was first rate. He was obviously proud. He had a right to be.

Excerpts from Joe Carlin's comments. Bill, thanks for your remembrance, "A Small Decision Over Schweinfurt." Reading your excerpt of this mission brought back some memories of this flight. I remember a lot of talk on the interphone, you, the co-pilot, and engineer talking about whether we could continue on. I remember the co-pilot feathering the engine without asking you. That was one of the few times I have seen you angry. We had lots of excitement as the crew were reporting the higher group of planes had overtaken us and were opening their bomb bay doors. I also remember on our way home when a little friend, I think a P-51, came alongside and flew with us for a short while. The whole crew was thankful and that made our trip home more pleasant…………Joe

RUNAWAY BALL TURRET

I always thought that "She Hasta" was the airplane that had the runaway ball turret gun. We were close by when it happened. But, Carroll Woldt says he flew that airplane on July 11,1944 and I'm going to go with him. That leaves "King Bee" as the aircraft involved in this unfortunate incident, so we're told.

According to my sortie list, we had gone to Munich that day, the first of three days in a row to the same target. We were stretched out in a tent, waiting to be picked up to go to interrogation, when we heard a .50 caliber machine gun start firing. It sounded like a cannon. Tired from the day's work, for an instant we were in kind of a daze, wondering what was going on. Then holes appeared in the tent, above our heads, and we knew that no matter what was going on we had better get out of there fast and find shelter.

Near the tent was a ditch located behind a hedge row. Our guys hurled themselves through the hedge and into the ditch. I was next to last and didn't penetrate the hedge, but our tail gunner, Charles Porter, crashed into me and carried both of us through.

After the machine gun stopped firing, I saw someone climbing a ladder leaned against the front of a smoking wing, trying to put out the fire. That took guts.

The story of how it happened is already well known: a problem in disarming a machine gun, an unlocked ball turret that started rotating, and a gunner who panicked and fled to his death.

Not a very happy day.

BUZZ BOMBS

I think they called it a rocket. Actually, a Buzz Bomb was a bomb with wings, a ram-jet engine, and a programmed amount of fuel that would run out at a predetermined point after which it would glide to the ground and hopefully, from the German viewpoint, hit a specified target.

The Germans had lots of Buzz Bombs. This was a very crude method of bombing, and many of them missed their intended target, landing indiscriminately over the English countryside. From the ground, if the engine cut out after the bomb was past you, OK. If it cut out overhead, still OK. But if it cut out before it got to you, it was time to start sweating out the impact.

So, lying in bed one night waiting for the mission list to be posted on the door of our barracks, I heard the familiar hoarse, staccato sound of an approaching Buzz Bomb. Quite sure that I was the only coward in the barracks who sweated these attacks and, wishing to conceal the fact that I was doing just that, I pulled the blanket over my head in order to secretly light a cigarette.

That done, I propped up my pillow and leaned back to take a drag and wait. As I did, I looked up and down the barracks to make sure that I had not awakened anyone. There was a cigarette glowing in nearly every bunk.

BREAKOUT AT ST. LO

Letter from Bill Kennedy to Joe Carlin, October 14, 2002

Hi again Joe, Craig sure got my memory machine going. It used to seem like our tour over there really didn't happen---it was just a book I read. But it did happen, and as our clocks wind down I feel the need to help get the story told.

What do you remember about the mission that helped break the Allied troops loose from the German encirclement around St. Lo? I have a sortie dated July 25th to "Battle Line Fr." Was this it? The name Avranches also pops into my memory. There's also one on the previous day to "Northern France."

I think that with a short run over and back, that unneeded fuel weight was put into additional bombs, like one two-thousand-pounder under each wing and four one-thousands in the bomb bay---the biggest load we ever carried.

We went in low, 12,000 feet, I think, for accuracy. Or was it lower? At low altitude we could not only see the flak burst, we could hear it rush in and burst---sort of like SsssssssshhhhWOP! At high altitude the air was too thin for me to hear the flak. Could we smell it?

I believe this was the mission when the front main spar of the left wing was shot completely through outboard of No. 1 engine. The skin and back spar held everything together. When we got back, the airplane was taken out of service for a complete new outer wing panel. Or, maybe that damage occurred the time we got into some 105mm flak near Aachen. Help?

Were we supposed to be bombing ahead of smoke flares set by the Allied ground troops? We heard the next day that for some reason, the bomb line kept falling back until we were bombing our own troops. I heard that Lt. Gen. McNair was behind the front lines observing and that he was killed by our bombs. Was it because the wind changed and blew the smoke from the flares back toward our side. Or, was the target line obscured by our own bomb explosions?

It must have been a living nightmare for the ground troops. I was always so glad to be up in the air instead of down there on the ground slogging it out face-to-face and sometimes hand-to-hand. Can you help on this one?

Thanks, Bill

Joe Carlin's comments. Bill, the thing I remember about the flights to help free the troops from St. Lo is as follows:

July 24 listed as northern France, we flew parallel to the battle lines between the Germans and the Allied forces. It was my understanding that a lot of planes dropped on the Allies the next day, July 25th (Battle lines, France). We were directed to fly perpendicular to the lines, i.e., across the lines. Don't hold me to this as my memory is not too good.

Joe

CRAIG CARLIN'S QUESTIONS

Bill and Dad,

These are great stories. I've never looked so forward to checking my email. I can't wait to get home and look for the latest installment of your adventures in the ETO. Here are a few questions to help jog your memory.

(I have done a good bit of editing and revising here. I couldn't answer all of Craig's questions and have been able to do a better job on those I did answer. BK)

Craig: What time did you get up on mission days?

Bill: Early enough so that after eating breakfast, attending briefing, and taking off, it was usually still dark when we were assembling the group over a radio beacon.

Craig: What did you have for breakfast?

Bill: Reconstituted dehydrated eggs ("powdered eggs"), scrambled with pieces of chopped up ping pong balls in them to simulate egg shells and make it seem like the real, fresh thing. Joking aside, I don't remember breakfast being anything but the typical menu.

Craig: Was the B-17 a good handling plane? Was it forgiving or exhausting to fly? How was it empty?

Bill: The B-17 was a good handling plane. It was forgiving. Formation flying was exhausting. The co-pilot and I split, 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off. It was a little livlier empty than fully loaded.

Craig: If you had the plane trimmed for level flight during the bomb run, it must have started to ascend rather quickly once the load was dropped.

Bill: Right. But we anticipated the change and it was no problem. Immediately after the drop, everyone had but one thought: "Let's get the Hell out of here!"

Craig: Did you change or tighten the formations for fighters vs flak?

Bill: The important thing for defense against fighters was to be in a position so that all guns on all planes were uncovered and had a maximum field of effective fire. The flak was mostly on the bomb run and Jerry didn't like to fly into his own flak A tight formation here made for a tight bomb pattern.

Craig: Was there "friendly competition" of any kind between crews? or animosity? Superstitions?

Bill: I don't recall a lot of competition or animosity. I guess lots of guys had their superstitions. I didn't. The best way to survive is to train hard and then do what you were trained to do. Of course, luck helped when it was the good kind.

Craig: It must have been surreal up high in the blue sky full of bombers and contrails. It must have been quite a sight.

Bill: When the days were clear, it was surreal. Blue sky above and red rooftops dotting green ground below. There were eerie, hollow hums and whines on VHF. Contrails got to be a hazard, forcing succeeding groups higher. On Mes (Maximum Efforts) it was possible for the large number of planes to create so many contrails that it amounted to an artificial overcast. Try flying formation on instruments. The one at the controls fixed on the lead ship, the other pilot calling out attitude from the instrument panel to help overcome vertigo. For example: "...level, ...shallow turn left, ...climbing turn right." Formations flying in the soup didn't hold together very long.

Craig: What did it smell like? Sound like?

Bill: I wasn't aware of smells or sounds at high altitude. We were wearing oxygen masks and headphones, and I was already half deaf.

Craig: What was the most nerve-wracking part of the flight? The most boring?

Bill: The most nerve-wracking part of the flight? All of it, especially the bomb run. The most boring part of the flight? None of it.

Craig: Do you remember the apprehension of your first mission? When was the first time you thought "Holy S---, this is for real".

Bill: As to the first mission, you said it---apprehension. I thought it was for real the day I got to Thorpe Abbots

Craig: How about seeing the English coastline and then landing on your final mission?

Bill: I didn't see the coastline, I was flying. Same for the landing. Just trying to get it down safely. Did we celebrate? I don't remember. I think I was numb.

Craig: What did you do in-between missions? Did you go to town? Play sports? What were the good places to eat in town?

Bill: Between missions we tried to relax and catch up on sleep. Town was London on pass. Thorpe Abbots was a country corner, and I don't remember much about Diss except that it was where we boarded the train for London. Some guys may have played sports. I didn't except maybe for table tennis. As for the good places to eat, the English were terribly short of food. Maybe we got good chow when on R & R (Rest and Recuperation) for a week.

I could ask a million questions. Keep the stories coming. These truly are priceless memories that I can share with my son and he will pass on to his children.

Sincere Regards,
Craig Carlin

GROUND SUPPORT

Before we flight crews could do our work, the ground support personnel had to do theirs. Administration, armament, transportation, food, supply, maintenance, security, medical care, and communications, to name some.

The support personnel we knew best were the "ground crews" assigned to maintain a specific aircraft. The work done by the 100th Bomb Group's ground crews was the finest example of professional dedication and skill that I have ever seen. The aircraft we flew were almost always "on the initial," (the crew chief's initial) meaning that every known problem had been fixed. In short, the maintenance was superb.

 

We really appreciated that.