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Group History

Bob Wolff's History

The war that we were expecting to engulf the U.S. came in an unexpected way, Pearl Harbor. All of us age 18 and over had signed up for the draft, but as time went on I did not want to be drafted, so in March of 1942 I enlisted as Private in the Army Air Corps (my draft notice arrived a few week later). The following paragraphs go into more detail than most of this story, but perhaps it will be of some interest.........

I was called to active duty in April and sent as an Aviation Cadet to the Santa Ana Training Center. After six weeks of marching. KP (kitchen police) and other Army indoctrination, I was sent to Thunderbird Field at Glendale, Arizona, near Phoenix (temperature about 110 degrees in June and July), to learn how to fly and aircraft, learn some navigation, weather and the other requirements of an Air Corps pilot. By the way it was the Army Air Corps in those days, it became the U.S. Air Force in 1947. At Thunderbird, which was a very deluxe primary flying school, we flew the Stearman PT-17, a fabric covered biplane. It was, and still is, a simple and reliable aircraft, many are still flying. It was a real thrill learning to fly, it was something I had always wanted to do.

Just because we were learning to fly, did not mean we did not march, we did. We also had ground school for more courses on weather, navigation, physical education, etc., etc. Any infraction (foulups), and we 'walked the ramp' to think about what we had done. The 'walk' consisted of one to five times around the perimeter of the field, with a seat chute on. The chute, as you walked, hit you on the back of the thighs with each step, few of us fouled up more than once.

I ground looped a plane once (dragged a wingtip), shortly after I had soloed, but because there were gusty winds (and after a flight review), I was allowed to go on. It was a tense time, as washed out flying cadets went to bombardier or navigator school, or became buck privates. I still recall the number of that plane - 44.

Two months later, I was stationed at Minter Field near Bakersfield, not as deluxe as Thunderbird, more like a regular Army base, but the food was excellent. I was learning to fly the Vultee BT-13, a low wing all-metal aircraft (we called the ("Vultee Vibrator", and it sure did). The plane had flaps, a variable pitch propeller and other 'modern' improvements to aircraft. It went faster and had more of a 'big' plane feel. We learned more aerobatics, began formation flying and night flying. One night our instructor took another cadet and I on a low level formation flight over the city of Bakersfield. There was a lot static about that flight, but I don't believe they every found out who did it - 'till now. We still marched, had KP and other Army routines, including cleaning the latrines. That's how I spent my 21st birthday. I was able to get leave almost every weekend and by car, bus or commercial plane got to L.A. to see Barbara.

Leaving Bakersfield, I was sent to Roswell, New Mexico for advanced training in a twin engine Cessna AT-17, called the Bobcat, a wood frame, fabric covered aircraft. It was a good plane, but one day two of us were flying and discovered that the cap had come off one of the wing tanks and gas was flowing out. We alerted the tower to land and - the wheels would not come down! As I was co-pilot that day, it was my job to crank the wheels down. During the cranking process, we 'buzzed' the tower a few times so they could be sure the wheels were in the proper position (that was fun). We also did a lot of night flying here, and one night, while flying over El Paso, we were fired on by anti-aircraft guns, fortunately, they missed.

We still went through the usual Army routines, though, we learned a lot that helped us the future flying. After the training, and when we graduated, I was appointed a Second Lieutenant and an ' Officer and a Gentleman' on January 4, 1943. Mom was there to pin on my wings, taking time off from the Red Cross, Dad was on active duty with the Navy, a Lt. Commander, and could not be there.

Some of the graduates went to twin-engine bombers, most of us were sent to four engine training bases, I was sent to Gowen Air Base at Boise, Idaho for training in a B-17. In those days it was one of the biggest aircraft flying and it seemed huge. It was cold there in the winter and I leaned to intensely dislike long underwear, even if it did keep me warm.

After training with a crew as co-pilot on a B-17 for two months, I was assigned my own crew and we trained for two more months, navigation, formation flying, flying blind (hood in the cockpit) and more. We then went to Casper, Wyoming for more advanced training. Long distance navigation, high altitude formation flying, low level gunnery practice were just some of the routines. One thing, we didn't have any KP. In a few weeks, we were ready to go overseas and were given leave.

A few words about our crew. Our co-pilot was Charles Sturart, about my age and from Louisiana, later would be in the glass and paint business. Larry McDonnel, navigator, was from Seattle and was an engineer, but after the war became an attorney. He passed on in 1986. Fredric "Buzz" White was our bombardier, he had been in law enforcement and stayed in the service after the war. Ira Bardman, a Pennsylvanian was our radioman. Willis Brown, assistant engineer and gunner also stayed in the service and retired, now he makes wooden toys. William "Casey" Casebolt, was our ball turret gunner and is living in Ohio. Alfred Clark and A.H. Eggleston, gunner and assistant radio, are the only two of our crew that have not surfaced, but they may show up, one of these days. Last but not least, was our engineer and top turret gunner, James D. Brady. Jim was oldest on our crew, about 33 at the time and 6 to 12 years older than the rest of us. He had to argue and fight the U.S. Army to be accepted as an aircrewman, but he was equipped for that kind of thing, he had been in the complaint department at Macy's in New York before the war. After the war he was ship's steward on a cruise ship, met a German girl in Hamburg, married her and they now live in New York. More about Jim, later on.

At home, Mom and Dad had moved to Palos Verdes, and Dad was now a Commander in the Navy Supply Corp. I didn't spent much time in P.V., most of it was in Los Angeles with Barbara. I asked Barbara to marry me, she accepted and I was approved by her Mother and Dad. At that point I did not need an aircraft to fly. We planned to marry after the war.

With my leave over, I was sent to Kearney, Nebraska for final training, long distance flights to Mississippi (three of us flew at an altitude of fifty feet over the entire state, though it was NOT on the approved list of exercises) and a more normal flight to Florida, little did I know how handy that low level flying experience would be.

After this final training, we were then given a B-17 to fly overseas. It was brand new and flew like a dream, we loaded the bomb bay with all our gear and headed for Bangor, Maine. After refueling, we left for Newfoundland and our destination was Glasgow, Scotland. A most interesting night flight, the green of Ireland was a welcome sight the next morning. We had to leave the plane in Scotland and were sent by train to Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk, England and the 100th Bomb Group, 418th Squadron. More training and my first combat mission.

This mission was as co-pilot, with another crew, to see what combat was like and get some experience. I believe the target was the north German coast. There was, within me, a lot of tension, but the mission didn't seem too bad, a little flak, a couple of fighter attacks, no one hurt, no damage, so what's the big deal about combat? Boy was I naive.

With that 'experience' behind me, which was NOT typical, I took my own crew on seven more missions over France, Holland, Germany and Italy. I'll eliminate most of the details of what happens on a mission, there has been a lot of movies and TV that shows what it was like. Sufficient to say that the enemy aircraft is shooting real bullets and the flak has real danger, so that damage, injury and death does occur, it's not all glamour or glory. I've seen planes explode, burn and be torn apart, and all of them had young healthy, living, breathing men in them. When I hear politicians and other 'know nothing' talk about going to war to 'help others' and 'save the world', it makes me sick!

The two greatest dangers we faced, were fighters and flak. The fighters we could see and the crew could fire back at them, the flak was something else, you couldn't see it coming and all of a sudden, it was there. When the shells exploded, they looked like a head with two arms and two legs. We called them the "Little Men." If the flak gunner could get a shells to explode at the right altitude and miss by only a hundred feet or so, tremendous damage was done. Once, flying out of France, with a hundred mile headwind, our ground speed was only 55 miles an hour. We were great targets. I happened to glance down and saw four tiny flashes on the ground. I knew that four shells were on the way up and as we were at 20,000 feet, I glanced at the clock and marked off twenty seconds. Sure enough, four shells exploded abut 300 feet off our left wing. We lost a landing light and received a few holes. We were very lucky during our combat tour, no injuries.

On one trip, August 17, 1943, our destination was North Africa, a ten hour, fourteen hundred mile trip. After bombing an aircraft factory in Regensburg, Germany, we were to go on to Africa, land and refuel, and then we were to bomb a location in France on the return trip to England a couple of days later.

We were the final group in a task force of seven groups, our altitude was 17,000 feet. We were supposed to have fighter escort, but for some reason they never showed. Enemy fighter appeared almost at once when we reached the French Coast, about an hour later, we took what appeared to be a 20 millimeter shell in the leading edge of the vertical stabilizer. The rudder was vibrating so badly that it was difficult to keep my feet on the rudder pedals. Shortly after that, something, flak or machine gun fire, hit the latch on the port life raft door and out came the raft. It hit the horizontal stabilizer and started into a dive. We were able to pull out and regain formation.

Fighter and flak attacks continued until we were about five minutes from the target, and when they quit, it was so quiet...... The target, an aircraft plant, was successfully plastered and our group, following the other groups, made a right turn and headed for the Alps. Because so many of the planes were shot up, the formation leader, Col. (later he was a 4 star General) Curtis LeMay circled the formation over Lake Como in Switzerland, to let the stragglers catch up. Once more together, only diminished in numbers, our group had lost half of the original 21 planes, we headed for Africa. As we flew over the Alps, Italy and Sicily, things were relatively calm. Except for the vibration in the tail, it could have been another training mission.

Over the Mediterranean, the red lights began to blink on our fuel gauges. The extra drag caused by the tail damage was using too much of our fuel. Our plane was so badly damaged we could not make the designated field and we had to land at an emergency field at a place called Bone, on the North African coast in Tunisia. The field was made of metal mats laid on the desert sand, and as we made our approach, the tower advised that another plane had cracked up on landing and to 'please go around'. With the damage to our tail, the plane would not respond, so with all the fuel lights blinking, we landed anyway and avoided the damaged aircraft. We taxied off to one side and the engines stopped. I don't remember kissing the ground, but they tell me my face was sure dirty.

We spent the night under the plane's wings and were taken by transport to Marrekesch in Algeria the next day. We bought souvenirs, had ice cream and saw the sights. A few days later we took a military transport back to England. That was our third mission, we had four more, some good, some not so good, no serious damage or injuries, thank God.

On one mission, our fifth, a few days after my 22nd birthday, we were to bomb a target in France. I saw the Eiffel Tower, it looked so tiny from our altitude and with the wispy clouds, it all looked so peaceful - just before a plane blew up in front of us. We had to fly through the smoke and debris, looking back we could only see a large pear-shaped dark cloud.

After our seventh mission, we had leave in London, which was a welcome respite. We could see a show, enjoy some of the sights and in spite of the scenes of war damage in the city, we had a good time. Buzz White, our bombardier, told a funny story of his time in London. While walking through the blackout of Piccadilly Circus, he was accosted by a 'lady of the evening' who offered him her services for two pounds. Her hand was on his chest and she felt his wings. "Oh, an airman, that'll be FIVE pounds." No comment as to whether he took her up on it. On returning to base, we found we were assigned to fly the next day.

Our plane had been flown by another crew the day before and they brought it back with quite a few holes in it. Repairs were being made all night, but were not complete by takeoff time, so we were two hours late in taking off. It was no big problem as we were 'tail end Charlie', last and lowest plane in the formation, so it was easy to fit into the group when we finally caught up to them. It was the most dangerous spot in the formation and was our eighth mission. On our way to the target, which was in Southern France, the group flew very low to avoid German radar which covered most of England. At one time, over Wales, I believe, we were so low we had to go around a hill with a tall antennae on it.

As we approached our target, near La Rochelle, we turned inland at about 17,000 feet to find the target was obscured by clouds. As the group turned to the secondary target, we were attacked by fighters and flak. Our plane lost the number three engine and after getting it feathered we started to catch up to the group with three engines. At that point the number two engine got it and, as we found out later, we acquired a large hole in the tail.

With only two engines in operation, we could not maintain formation and were falling behind, so we dove toward the ground to get away from fighters and flak. However six German ME-109 fighters came after us, we got two, I saw one go down, smoking, behind some trees and, flying at a altitude of about 50 to 100 feet, we dodged a bridge and a church steeple, the town was Rochefort, I think, then we were over the eater and fighters had left.

Three miles out to sea, I heard a 'pop' and then a 'pop', 'pop' and the right outboard engine had blown three cylinder heads and caught fire. Pushing it too hard, I guess. We had no choice but to land in the water. It was a good landing, the water was smooth and we all got out and into the dinghies. The plane floated less than ten minutes, but we had a good chance to see the hole in the tail (which I hadn't felt when it happened), it then dove to the bottom. A French fishing boat picked us up in a short time, but a German patrol boat was right behind them, with a machine gun trained on us. The fishing boat was directed to a dock on a small island not too far away where we were surrounded by the Germans. We were now Prisoners of War. The date was September 16, 1943.

The German military, at that time, did not mistreat their prisoners, but we were not treated as heroes either. Our first night was in an old stone castle on the island, near La Rochelle, not too pleasant. We were in individual cells. about four by eight feet, a stone self with straw for a bed, a pit at one end for 'relief' and a covered hole in the heavy wood door through which we received food, a gruel with black bread. Someday I would like to go back and see the place again, as so much had happened and so fast, it's hard to recall everything.

The next day we were sent to a German airfield, which was also a hospital school. We had flown over it the day before while they were at dinner. Later they told us they dove under the tables to avoid possible bombs (we had dumped our bombs in an empty field on the way down). They told us we were losing the war and that Germany would triumph. The news they heard was what their leaders wanted them to hear.

The next two days, we were on a bus and a train to Frankfurt, Germany, for interrogation. We saw the Eiffel Tower again and many soldiers. In other circumstances, it might been a Warner Bros. movie. We also saw some of the 'Hitler Youth', brain washed boys of 12 to 16 who were arrogant little twerps. If Germany had not been defeated, they would have been a terrible scourge.

We were searched, but not very well. I had, in the toe of a sock, smuggled a map of Europe which was later used in our POW camp. The questioning, in Frankfurt, was not too bad, but they had fairly good information on our Army records (lots of spies and sympathizers in the USA, I guess), where we lived, where we trained. One thing they were not up date on, was my rank. I had made 1st Lt. a few days before, they had me down in their records as a 2nd Lt. The interrogator congratulated me. They wanted to know our target (we hadn't bombed it because of overcast) and other classified information. They got no information, and were so frustrated that one of our crew was placed in the 'cooler', sort of a prison cell, a couple of days. One German officer had been educated in the U.S. and told me he would be gong back to San Francisco after they won the war (Hah !).

A short note here, Jim Brady, our engineer, had a bout with pneumonia just before this flight and was not with us. His place was taken by Carl Simon, a good replacement, on this mission.

A few days later the 4 officers of our crew left Frankfurt, by way of a boxcar, for Stalag Luft III, near Sagen in eastern Germany, in what is now Poland, we arrived Oct. 1st. The 6 enlisted men of the crew were sent to another camp, we did not see them again until long after the war.

Stalag Luft III was one of many camps for downed flyers, this one held about 10,000 men, Americans and British, in several compounds, that is, fenced and guarded areas. We were in the center compound, mostly Americans. Food and clothing were in short supply, but we were able to write one letter a week and receive mail and parcels. That is if the trains could get through after the bombs that were regularly dropped on most of the rail lines in Germany. Word reached home on October 16th (1943) that we were prisoners, a fact that brought much joy to Mom, Dad and Barbara, as all they had received was a 'missing in action' t telegram. I still have it. My first letter a arrived several weeks later and from then on, letters and parcels arrived more or less regularly, again, depending on how the German rail situation was.

Leadership of the prisoners within the camp compound, were the senior officers present, Col. Delmar Spivey was in charge of our compound, a pretty good leader. There was one U.S. Navy officer and several flyers from Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, but most in our compound were from the U.S. Other compounds were mostly Brits.

Life in our Kriegsgefangenenlager (literally "War Prisoners Camp') centered around food, its collection and distribution, preparation and consuming. Not because we were gourmets or expert chefs, but because it was quite limited and we did as much as we could to stretch it and divide it equally. We DID become pretty good cooks! WE made pans and dishes out of powered milk cans and even made some wine out of raisins.

The prisoners were generally divided into groups of eight, called 'combines'. This made it easier to prepare food and there were 20 to 30 'combines' in each barracks. We got a dishpan full of cooked barley each morning, a loaf of gray bread (made from wood shavings, you could see them), a sort of blood sausage, some margarine and , rarely, meat of some kind. Each man got one Red Cross parcel once a week when the trains ran, sometimes it was every two weeks. These parcels had goodies such as coffee or tea, powdered milk, Spam and other delicious items, including a chocolate bar. This last item was GI bar of hard semi-sweet chocolate and was primary medium of exchange for cigarettes, clothing and anything that could be traded.

We had books, some musical instruments, gardens, a large exercise yard and other amenities. We had showers once a week, toilets were the 'outhouse' type (ten holers, I recall). The Red Cross, YMCA and other international agencies supplied as much as the Germans would allow (again, depending on train availability).

It was not a life of ease and fun, we were counted two or more times a day. The guards, we called them 'Goons', inside the camp would search our personal items while we were assembled outside in the cold. They rarely took anything unless it could be used for escape. If a guard came through the barracks on a causal inspection, someone near the door would shout 'Goon-up' or 'Tally-Ho' to alert us. Some guards were strict and would not talk with us, some would, and there was one who had lost an eye while fighting on the Russian front. We called him 'Popeye', which he liked after hearing that was the name of a famous strong man in the U.S. He was a nice guy, for a guard.

We were sometimes hungry and most of all there was the uncertainty of the future - tomorrow, next week or next year, what would happen? There was a high, double barbed wire fence around the compound with a guard tower at each corner, machine guns at hand. One step into the 'no mans land' between the wire and guardrail at the edge of the walking area, and the guns would speak. Escape was something most of us thought of, but the Germans were very alert to that possibility. However, there were several attempts to escape, mostly tunnels, most failed, but there were some individuals who made it in other ways. There were a couple of movies, "Stalag 17" and the "The Great Escape", that gave a realistic view of war prisoners life in Germany. In prison camp we heard many stories of how some of the some of the men got shot down, too many to discuss here, except for one...........

I received a letter from home with a picture of Jim Brady in a civilian suit, and no explanation. After the way, we found out that Jim had recovered from pneumonia and a few weeks later had been assigned to another crew. This crew was shot down in 1944, but the plane managed to crash land in Sweden. That's were the picture was taken. The crew was interned and it appears Jim had the run of the country, met the Royal Family, saw the sights and met a girl. It wasn't until many years after the war that he knew of his son. He and the lady were unable to make contact after the war, she had passed on and eventually the son, as a married adult, with children, made contact. Jim is quite a guy.

In camp, we did have something that the Germans knew about, but could not find. It was a radio with which we could listen to the BBC and get the latest news of the war. At various times, we would post guards and someone would read us the latest of what was happening on the outside. We knew of bombing raids and other military action that the Germans said were not significant or claimed that never happened and we knew of D-Day and other important events. Where the radio came from or was kept, we were never told, the fewer that knew the better. We would get copies of German newspapers, once in a while, and those were translated by those among us what could read the language. There were obvious differences between our radio and their newspaper reports.

There's a book that the YMCA gave us (it was all blank pages), that has some drawing and notes I made that may be of interest of our life in camp. There is a copy of a German newspaper, a notice about not attempting to escape, letters and pictures. Mom and Dad had kept a scrapbook of their view of my wartime experiences that may have details I've left out. There are also quite a few books that I have gathered over the years since, that tell more of this war from different viewpoints, some of them are much more detailed than the above.

We stayed in that camp until January 28, 1945, when the approaching Russians, forced the Germans to move us, as we were the 'bargaining chips' that the Germans hoped would ease their terms of surrender. By this time they knew they would not win the war. Actually no one wins a war, we all lose.

We were marched through the snow for almost eight days. One night we were in church, then a barn, another night in brick factory where we appreciated the warmth. One night we were in some kind of barracks and a number of us became ill, we were moved out early the next morning and did not have to clean it up. Going through some small towns, the people were mostly silent as we walked by, dew were hostile, I guess they saw the writing on the wall.

The end of the march was in rail yard at Spremberg, then by train (about 40 men to a boxcar) to a camp, Stalag VIIA (the 'Snake Pit'), in Moosburg, about 30 miles northeast of Munich. We were crowded into an old barrack and a tent and deloused. Life was a little tougher, but we knew the end of the war was near.

On April 29, 1945, the 3rd Army set us free, a tank knocked down the gate. The U.S. Army took us to Igolstadt nearby. We were flown to La Harve on May 9th, the day of the German's surrender, had a chance to clean up, get debriefed and get acquainted with the free world. A few days later, we were placed on a ship for New York by way of the Caribbean.

Processing by the Army took a few days at Camp Yaphank and while there I got a message from Archie and Barbara Mayo who were in New York. We had dinner at the Copacabana, one of the fanciest nightclubs in the city. What a contrast to the last twenty months.

After we were cleared to go home, we left on a passenger train for the West Coast (no boxcar this time). The train wound it's way West, dropping off at various stations, former POWs, many of whom I haven't seen since. You know, it's sort of funny, you spend days, weeks, months and years with someone in life and death situations, the way is over and you go back to where you came from. Names and faces sort of disappear in time, but I can still see, and hear a lot of them, some from training, the air battles, the POW camps and mostly, the people - the British, the aircrews, the Germans. Some were good, some were so-so, some not so good. All in all, looking back fifty years, it was an interesting adventure, and marked a major change in my life and the way I looked at it.

Anyway, back to the train winding it's way West. At one stop in St; Louis, some U.S.O. girls were passing out candy bars to all of us and I got a Snicker Bar. I had never really enjoyed them before, but this was wonderful. I still think they are great. The train could not go fast enough for us and took 6 days to get to our destination of Camp Beale in California, near Marysville.