July 23, 1979
Mr. I. L. Hawkins
29 Birch Avenue
Suffolk IP14 NT England
I wish to acknowledge receipt of your letter of June 14th and apologize for my delayed reply. However, I do considerable business traveling and, consequently, am away from the office a great deal.
You mentioned that you were writing a book about the 8th Air Force raid on Munster on October 10th, and this is certainly very admirable. I recall the raid very well as Rosie Rosenthal was the only one to return.
For background, I have enclosed a copy of a letter, which I sent a few years back to a young high school student, Gary Lines. This does not deal with the Munster raid exclusively, but it does provide information on the life back at the base.
The Engineering Officer was in charge of the readiness and maintenance for the aircraft assigned to the Squadron. Normally, each Squadron had from twelve to eighteen planes, and each plane had a maintenance crew of three to four men. The organization was that the man in charge for the maintenance for each aircraft carried the title of "Crew Chief" and reported to a "Flight Chief". We had three "flights" and the Flight Chiefs reported to the "Line Chief". He, in turn, reported to the Engineering Officer, who was also responsible for the Inspectors, Technical Supply, and refueling crews (Petrol). We also had an office staff of two or three clerks. All told, there were approximately 120 men. I forgot the "Sheet Metal Workers" who totaled two or three men, and were responsible for repair of the surface of the aircraft.
The armament and bombardment (bombs) were handled separately. We also had a Base Squadron for shop repair of equipment, but not for engine overhaul.
The Crew Chief’s individual responsibility was to have the plane in A-1 condition and ready to go, including the refueling. Prior to takeoff, he would preflight the airplane on the ground. This was usually done between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m., with taxi-out between 5:30 and 5:45 and takeoff at 6:00a.m. Since the planes flew during the day much of the work was done at night. Inasmuch as we did not have any hangers, all of the maintenance was done out of doors, and sometimes this was during bitter weather. Whatever was wrong with the plane, it was the Crew Chief’s responsibility to make the repairs if he could and , if necessary, to contact the Base Group for replacement parts such as propellers and engines. We kept a supply of tires, carburetors, filters, etc., in our own tech supply out on the line. Normally, any malfunctioning piece of equipment was replaced. Engine replacements or replacement of major surfaces such as the wing of tail had to be flight-tested, and it was our practice that the Crew Chief would accompany the pilots on the test flight. The maintenance crews did not normally fly combat, although they might go on exceedingly long shuttle missions such as Russia or Africa.
Late in the war I was promoted to Group Engineering Officer. In the capacity, the four Squadron Engineering Officers reported to Group. In addition the Group Engineering Officer had a functional responsibility for armament, bombardment, radar, field maintenance, etc.
Flight Crew Relationship
In reply to your question, the Ground Crew had a close personal relationship with the Flight Crew, particularly the pilots. The loss of any plane was always a personal tragedy, but the hope always existed that they had bailed out in time and were a prisoner of war. The Munster loss could almost have been foretold, because we put only about 13 planes over the target. I believe our normal complement at that time for the group was 21 planes stacked in formation to provide the greatest amount of 50-caliber firepower against the German Fighters. Evidently, our group had an excessive number of abortions (returned to the Base early), or losses on the way to the target. As a result, the German Fighters picked our group as their target, since it had less firepower. There was also the report that the 100th was a "marked" group by the Luftwaffe. The story goes that during and early raid, the wheels of the B-17 were lowered while the plane was above German territory. In the early days of the war this meant that the bomber has surrendered and would land, whereupon the enemy fighters would come in to escort the plane into their field. However, on this particular occasion when the German Fighter came in close he was shot down by a waist gunner. Upon landing, the pilot and the crew were court-martialed. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the story, but that is the gist of it. Supposedly, as a result, the Luftwaffe was out to "get" the 100th. The heavy losses gave the group the name of "The Bloody Hundredth". Of course, one hundred was nice, round sound, and much better than the 316th or 456th. Our marking was a "Square D". this, too, was quite easily recognizable. After the Munster raid we were taken off duty for several days to give the survivors a rest, and also to replenish the crews and planes.
After we had been in the field for a year, there really wasn’t any problems that could not be handled one way or another. In many cases the battle damage was severe, but the B-17 lent itself for a fairly rapid replacement of wings, tail or fuselage. It was a most durable aircraft and could sustain tremendous damage and still fly. On two different occasions we had a plane return without a horizontal stabilizer (rear tail section) on one side. This had been broken off right at the fuselage due to being attacked by German Fighters going through the formation. I might relate just a couple of problems that were not too sophisticated.
We were losing several airplanes because the bomb bay doors would not open in a normal manner, making it necessary for the pilot to "salvo" the bombs. In that instance, the doors dropped open and it was necessary to reengage the doors with a hand crank and literally crank them up. This took many minutes since the gear ratio was such that dozens of turns necessary. With the doors open the speed of the aircraft was reduced five to ten miles per hour and this might force the plane out of the formation. As I recall, our flight speed was around 150 miles per hour and the wing men would need to do a little better on any kind of turn. If you dropped out of formation, you were a "sitting duck" should fighters be around.
The problem was the darn doors always worked perfectly when on the ground. In fact, they worked perfectly for any test flights. Eventually, it was discovered that the culprit was the "relief tube" which was in the bomb bay. Our flights were normally quite long with take-off at 6:00a.m. and possibly a return ten hours later. Even a short flight would be four or five hours. The crews wore sheepskin clothing, and while using the relief tube they balanced themselves on a 6" to 8" beam between the bombs. Since they were in flight they could be bouncing a bit, and as a result, the limit switches might get a bath that had not been planned. At 30 to 60 degrees below zero, these switches immediately froze and, consequently, the doors would not operate. It is ironic, and I hate to think of it, but possibly many lives were lost for this lack of foresight on such a simple thing.
We had another engineering problem and that was "tires". As I remember, it was a 56" rim and the plane rode on two wheels, and weighed about 58,000# fully loaded. The B-17 had been designed in the Thirties for around 36,000#, but subsequent models beefed it up to carry a heavier load with bigger engines, but the same tires. To compound the problem the fields in England were not as well graded as those in the States. In other, words a runway was more apt to follow the contour of the earth. Likewise, wartime workmanship (oftentimes women) added another rough, and sometimes bumpy surface. The local aggregate contained a lot of flint and with spalling, these sharp stones would penetrate the ten treads on the tires and could cause blowouts. Takeoff was at approximately 115 to 125 miles per hour but the greatest danger occurred around 60 to 70 miles per hour when the plane had less lift but a lot of bounce to the ounce. We noticed on take-off that tires would deflect, what appeared to be 30 to 50%, with a constant danger that the sidewalls would blow. This would cause a ground loop and possible loss of the plane and life. We were fortunate, and I do not recall any of the latter.
The solution was twofold. In typical Army style, we received a shipment of tires that should have gone to Alaska. However, these tires had a steel mesh in them to give additional traction on icy runways. What it did for us was prevent the penetration of the flint rocks into the tire. We also found that if we did not follow the tech orders but rather increased the tire pressure to 90#, what we had less deflection of the sidewalls and fewer blowouts. Again, it was just simply a matter of putting two and two together, and knowing the conditions. Evidently, these were not known back in the States.
As an example all planes were equipped with inflatable de-icer boots on the leading edge of the wings and tail. This equipment cost thousands of dollars but added hundreds of pounds and decreased the flight speed. Since we did not have this type of icing conditions in Europe, these boots were removed prior to combat and safely stored away. They may still be there, as far as I know.
Another condition that might be termed very lowly was the condition of the field itself. Due to the loamy soil and the heavy moisture, the grassy portion of the field would not support our planes. Quite naturally on take-off the pilots would be nervous, and when taxiing many of them were careless. Consequently, many of them taxied off of the perimeter strip and as soon as one or both wheels would touch the grass, they might sink in as much as 2 to 3 ft. Digging them out was a Herculean task, since the bombs to be unloaded, but we couldn’t always get the bomb bay doors open. Likewise, the 2800 gallons of gas had to be pumped out of the tank to lighten the plane. Even then, when we tried to jack the airplane up, we found that all we did was jack the jacks deeper into the mire. Sometimes the planes were so far in we couldn’t get the jack under the wing to start with. The bad part about all was that if the pilot didn’t run it all the way off the taxi strip he could foul up the entire operation by blocking part of the runway.
This problem was resolved in part by the large air bags which were developed, I believe, by the English. We borrowed some of these and you could very easily slide them under the wing and pump them up with an air compressor, and the distribution of the load was such that the plane could be raised. Our Group Engineering Officer at the time, Major Ravegno, organized several heavy-duty truck tractors to literally pull the planes out of the mud if they could get a tie to the landing gear. This group became known as "Revegno’s Rangers".
I mentioned test flights and I might recount one humorous incident with a Chaplain who at the time was assigned to our Base. He had never flown in a bomber, and maybe never, and to help him with his counseling, he asked if he could go on a test flight. An engine change required four hours in the air, and he was notified in a few days that a plane would be taking off shortly. He arrived at the dispersal point, strapped on his parachute and took off. After being aloft for a short period of time, one of the engines developed some trouble and there was an engine fire ahead of the firewall. This wasn’t all that uncommon, but it did necessitate the normal safety precautions, including opening the bomb bay doors and possible "feathering" the engine.
The Chaplain, who was in the cockpit, asked the co-pilot how the parachute worked. He was told that all he had to do was jump out, count to three and pull the red handle. The pilots were busy with their problems when one of them noticed an open parachute floating groundward. When they looked around, the Chaplain was gone. They called back to the tower, giving their position and asking that a Jeep be sent out in the general vicinity looking for the Chaplain. To this day I do not know if he ever was in an airplane when it landed.
That’s enough reminiscing. I will look through some of my books, and should there be something of further interest, I will send it along. War, like many things, is inspired by the heroic and dramatic, but is won or lost, with the "unheralded" performing the humble chores.
William A. Carleton