Missions and Memories of a WWII Bomb Group
by Harry H. Crosby
Late in 1945 I was talking to a young pilot who had just been assigned to the 100th Bomb Group. Although he was supremely, even brashly, confident about himself and his crew, he was worried. Yes he was afraid. He said that when he was in the States training, he had already heard of the Bloody Hundredth, the hard-luck outfit of World War II. He had heard the story of how the Luftwaffe was waging its own special war against our Group. He told me stories about our Group, most of which I, from one of the original crews who had come over on May 31, 1943 had never heard. The Bloody Hundredth was already the group about which legends were developing. Fittingly, ironically, and sadly, that young pilot became a part of the legend. His crew arrived on the base in the afternoon, were assigned to their barracks, rousted out the next morning for a mission before they had unpacked their bags, and were shot down. He was from then on known as The Man Who Came to Dinner…
I have always been amazed that I was so late in coming to know Horace. As Group Navigator I flew only when the Group led the Division or the Eighth Air Force, which meant that whereas other flying crewmen could finish a tour and go home, I had to stay. Since I was in the flying echelon I spent most of my time with flight crews, who would come, stay few weeks, and then either get shot down or go home…At the time Horace was the Squadron Adjutant of the 350th and therefore lived at the Squadron site. It happened, however, that he had just been promoted to Group Adjutant and would be looking for a barracks in the "WAAF Site," where headquarters personnel were quartered. (I should add there were no WAAFs there) I therefore introduced myself to Horace and told him of my problem. Since he was looking for a room anyway the new Group Adjutant moved in with the Group Navigator. It was, on my part, a wise decision.
As Group Adjutant and later as Ground Executive, Horace knew everyone and was a friend to officers and enlisted men alike. Horace was the man who could get stuff done, whether it was finding a bricklayer to build an oven for a new bakery, or making sure that a corporal was treated fairly during a court-martial. When he left the 350th the officers and men chipped in and bought him a fine silver cigarette case. He received a Bronze Star for the job he did at the 100thand he deserved it. Of all the great men I met during World War II, I have always considered him one of the most impressive.
Horace never left the 100th. He attended two reunions in Brooklyn soon after the war. When we held the 1969 Reunion at Andrews Field in Washington, D.C., Horace served as chairman. Since then he has been co-chairman of the 100thGroup’s informal association. As such, he carries on a voluminous correspondence with the members. Every time one of the old gang hears about the Group and writes to join, Horace writes a note bringing him up to date…
The anthology is his idea. He has been keeping the records and the correspondences, and does not want the legends, and the history to die. At first I was not impressed with the idea, feeling that the old stories could to be fitted into any kind of coherent, meaningful collection. I was wrong…I am sure I speak for all of you when I thank the man who brought them together. Another job by Horace Varian for the 100th .. a job well done.
This book is an anthology and nothing more nor less than that name implies: a collection of selected writings by members of the 100th Bombardment Group (H) and by others about the Group. It is not a history of the Unit and there may well be areas of the Group’s life which are not touched upon. Nearly all the material was written spontaneously between 1942 and 1978 with no thought of publication. Only a few of the shorter pieces were written at our request to include persons or subjects we felt important.
Only after assembling this material did I realize that the writers represent a remarkable cross-section of those who made up the 100th: enlisted men and officers, flyers and ground pounders; and few who didn’t belong to the Group but whose paths crossed ours. … Without assistance from many people, I would never have been able to prepare this book for publication. Harry and Jean Crosby rescued me from many areas of inexperience. Norma Swenson took many hours from her busy life to proofread the entire collection and to help shape the book’s title. John Archer, the 100th’s staunch English friend, who knows more about the Group than do most of its member, has contributed two articles to this collection. Many more have contributed greatly and I welcome this opportunity to express warm appreciation for such unstinting help and encouragement from so many people.
It may be that all Bomb Groups were much alike. Certainly their day to day lives and missions were similar. People who were in other Groups and know of our friendships, the visiting, the reunions, and the continuing esprit, tell me the 100th must have had something different. It did.
Horace L. Varian
The Hundredth in Review by Storm Rhode
Though the 100th’s operational loses were spectacular, they gave rise to grossly exaggerated figures. In a effort to restore perspective, the Editor of "Splasher Six" in 1978 asked Storm to write this report.
Our bittersweet memories of WWII encompass history, drama, adventure, tragedy, romance in some cases – so many items in the full spectrum of life at war in flak-blackened skies coupled with life in the pleasant English countryside. Most 100th veterans probably would enjoy some data from those days that they can think about, throw around, argue over and harbor for the future. The Bloody 100th Bombardment Group (H) was a very effective strike force which became renowned for spectacular heavy losses at intervals during combat operations involving intensive fighter – bomber battles, heavily defended targets, and extremely cold and foul weather. Its first combat mission was flown 25 June 1943, and its last on 20 April 1945. Total missions of the 100th were 306 including 6 food drop missions to the Netherlands in May, 1945. Total credited sorties were 8,630 and total bomb tonnage: 19,257 tons, plus 435 tons of food dropped on food mission. The average life of a B-17 in combat with the 8th Air Force was 11 missions. In its period of combat 1943-45, the 100th lost 177 aircraft missing in action plus 52 missing in other operations for a total of 229. Our gunners claimed 261 enemy aircraft knocked down, 101 probably destroyed and 139 possibly destroyed. This included a number of ME-262 jet fighters in the later periods of the war. The 100th’s most costly combat missions were; Regensburg, 17 Aug 43 (10), Bremen, 8 Oct 43 (7), Munster, 10 Oct 43 (12 out of 13 put-up), Berlin, 4 Mar 44 (15), Berlin, 24 May 44 (9), Ruhland, 11 Sep 44 (11), and Hamburg, 31 Dec 44 (12).-. the 100th was third in total losses, but the first two Groups (91st and 96th) had longer combat tours. The 100th in WWII was a great adventure for all of us and one in which we’re proud to have served, yet humbled and sad in remembering our many friends who didn’t come back – Heroes, all.
As a final note of interest, our old outfit later became a B-47 jet bomber unit at Pease AFB in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. John Robinson, Squadron Commander of the 418th in the 1945 period, was Operations Officer in the 100thBomb Wing at Portsmouth. Then in the mid 60’s the B-47’s were phased out of the USAF and the 100th became the 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, equipped with U-2’s. Its B-47 Jet Bombers never saw the war in Southeast Asia during 1965-73 but many of its old-time veterans, including this writer, did.
Reprinted from "Contrails"
Near the end of our stay in England a group of enlisted men, with backgrounds in publishing, began assembling,inI word and picture, material for the widely distributed "Contrails, My War Record." The book was completed within a year of the end of the War. These excerpts tell of the training phase of the Group in the States and the somewhat painful transition to overseas assignment. We do not know who did the actual writing.
On October 27, 1942, the Japanese sliced through the thick jungles of Guadalcanal, opening a major attack…In New York, the Times headlined the news that the Red Army was still holding in Stalingrad….Presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie spoke to the nation, urging the opening of a second front…A page three cut divulged that Nazi airmen were harassing English villagers...London had had two alerts.
There were men who were bored that day. At Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho, the headquarters clerks read their local papers, yawned and turned out Special Order Number 300. The 100th Bombardment Group (H) came into being. It was small and inconsequential. So were all things in the beginning. By far the majority of the men were civilians in uniform, hardly indoctrinated in the business of war. There were a few veterans of peacetime service to disseminate military wisdom and procedure, though the 100th soon evolved a way of life which was frequently at variance with old army tradition. On November 1, 1942, the cadres entrained for Walla Walla, Washington…Inevitable, there was considerable confusion as the budding group adjusted itself to its first duty station.
Men from other training centers began to swell the ranks of the group twofold within the first three day self existence. The four bombardment squadrons began to fill out. Commanding the squadrons were 1st Lts. William W. Veal, 349th; Gale W. Cleven 350th; John B. Kidd, 351st and Robert E. Flesher, 418th. Each had an Engineering Officer, Adjutant and Supply Officer as well as other administrative and technical officers.
it was not too difficult for the men of the 100th to span the three miles and give Walla Walla the once over. They found a reasonably hospitable, prosperous and quite undistinguished small city, set in fertile, flat and monotonous regions of tilled fields. The town contained the usual complement of resources for soldiers’ enjoyment: a well-equipped Service Club and an ample number of saloons, purveying only the feeble brew permitted by Washington state law.
The sound of four-engine bombers were heard on the base for the first time. Straight from the Boeing factory at Seattle, four new Flying Fortresses, B-17’s of the latest series (F), were delivered and divided among the four squadrons. These were the implements with which most of the personnel were to become more familiar than the family car. Now, very few had ever been near a B-17, much less inside one.
Almost coincidental with the arrival of the first planes, the 100th received it’s original aircrews, one to a squadron. The 349th was headed by Lt. Oran b. Petrich; the 350th by Lt. Norman H. Scott; the 351st by Lt. Roland T. Knight and the 418th by Lt. Everett E. Blakely.
Practice flights began immediately. The crews needed this familiarization course, needed to get the feel of their big airplanes. The pilots and co-pilots had logged some time in B-17’s, as had some of the aerial gunners and engineers. The ground crews, most of whom were graduates fresh from technical schools which had given little practical; training on B-17’s, approached the monsters in eager ignorance. The airplane mechanics, communications men, armorers, ordnance men, all found that their long school training was but a beginning, a scratch on the surface of the work required. The men swarmed over the planes locating positions, straining, grunting, swearing, knocking their heads against every projection and removing several square feet of skin from the many available knuckles.
It was typical of the character of these men that within a matter of weeks, the freshman mechanics', and armorers and communication men were servicing their battleships of the air with the nonchalance, if not quite the efficiency, of veterans on the line.
Even in this early phase of the group’s flying experience, the work of the maintenance crews was competent beyond expectations. The planes flew as often as the weather permitted – which was an average of one day in three – without an accident. As the first month of existence raced to a close, the group had shaped up remarkably. The four aircrews were getting in considerable flying time despite the adverse weather, the ground crews were beginning to handle their tasks with some assurance.
Thanksgiving of 1942 at Walla Walla was celebrated with a splendid feast, and the variety and quality of delicacies could hardly have been improved upon. Toward the end of the month, a rumor mill, working overtime as it did throughout the war, ground out information as to the location of the group’s next base. Those with the inside dope were unhappy at the prospect, for they knew it would be Wendover Field , a spot at the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert on the Utah-Nevada line. Wendover was well known as a desolate. Primitive camp and in the opinion of many men, only the army with its vast knowledge of the country, could have chosen so barren a place.
Wendover Field was found to be as unattractive and uncomfortable as anticipated. Living quarters for men consisted of long, low, tar-paper shacks, crowded with double-decker bunks and heated by pot-bellied stoves, which consumed vast quantities of soft coal. The quarters and shops were continually tracked with clods of white, hygroscopic goo that dried like concrete and clung forever to anything it touched.
Flying, obviously, was what the group had came to Wendover to do, and fly it did … about twenty hours our of each twenty-four. The original air echelon of four airplanes was joined by new crews waiting at Wendover. These, with others which arrived during the first week on the new base, brought the 100th air strength up to thirty-six crews and additional aircraft were delivered throughout the month, until the group was operating twenty planes. It was beginning to look like an outfit. New men for the ground sections were also waiting the group when it arrived. These men came from various parent groups and pools; some were from the Hundredth’s own parent organization, the 29th Group, at Gowen Field.
The training at Wendover was a rough grind, both in the air and on the ground. Four practice missions were scheduled daily, and each was more than five hours average duration, which left less than an hour between flights for the mechanics and armorers to service and re-arm the planes. Most daylight missions covered bombing and gunnery, while the night flights took care of bombing and navigation. Combat crews, numbering more than the planes available, took turns flying. In some ways the facilities for training at Wendover were excellent; in others they were highly inadequate. There was good flying weather, an excellent airdrome, and ample supply of all essentials and a perfect bombing range on the vast salt flats. Perhaps the most serious lack was that of air-to air gunnery practice. For some reason, no tow-target shooting was provided during the group’s first session at Wendover.
Christmas of 1942 descended with a sudden flurry of packages and thoughts of home. It was officially marked by sumptuous dinners at the squadron mess halls. The 349th, in full spirit of the season, decorated their feast with a great vase of carved ice in which actual red roses, imported from a Salt Lake City hothouse, were magnificently incongruous in the barren desert where not even cacti could find sustenance in the salt-crusted earth.
On December 28, Captain Minor Shaw of S-2 left Wendover as head of an advance party, composed of one officer from each squadron. Four days later, on the first day of the new year, 1943, the entire group, less the airborne contingent of approximately 175 men in eighteen planes, set out for the new base…Sioux City, Iowa. The flying party took off the following day and arrived in Sioux City by way of Tucson, Arizona, and Pueblo, Colorado.
The rail travelers occupied two troop trains, the first of which pulled out of Wendover shortly after daylight. Despite the fact that there were a great many big heads among those who had welcomed in the new year, it was a happy bunch. The men were delighted to leave the desert.
The eyes of the troop trainers failed to register the increasing frost on the windows, and upon arrival at Sioux City, the initial nine degrees below zero blast had a definite sobering effect. It proved to be one of the warmer days. There was glazed ice on the ground, interspersed with patches of snow. On the concrete apron and runways of the airdrome, the ice was a solid two inches thick – making a fine, vast skating rink, but a treacherous place for flight operations.
Living conditions, as well as working facilities, were superior at Sioux City. Barracks were comfortable and not overcrowded. The post afforded all the desired conveniences and minor luxuries. Sioux City itself was a soldier’s Promise Land. A city of some 100,000 population, its hotels, bars and places of amusement were well up to accommodating the 100th. The people were hospitable, and the city had escaped the war boom with all its congestion and shortages. It was a liberal town, with an almost frontier atmosphere of tolerance and conviviality. The 100th gave it their stamp of approval. There were plenty of bright lights, and the men were attracted to the Glass Hat Bar of the West Hotel, the Rathskeller, and the Oasis, distinguished by Egyptian décor and fine food. On the rougher side of the ledger, the Beer Cellar and the Alamo were tailored to the tastes of a goodly number of the 100th. For late suppers the Savoy was popular, but Charlie’s Steak House was the supreme spot for sheer pleasure of the palate. No one seemed to lack for dinner companions.
There were days on end when the thermometer never rose above zero. One morning at daybreak the official thermometer at base weather registered 30 degrees below zero. In spite of the temperature the Group’s training moved ahead. The program for this supposedly final phase called for three practice missions daily. Stress was put on navigation, formation flying and included bombing and air to ground gunnery on the ranges in the wilds of the Dakotas. Two missions were daylight flights and the third was always flown in darkness, all this when weather permitted. Several days passed during which all the available engine-heating equipment failed to warm the engines sufficient for them to start. Other missions were scrubbed because of severe snowstorms. All told, the planes flew but half of the scheduled missions and the aircrews added little to what they had absorbed in the month of intensive training operations at Wendover.
Although the ground crews did not have the volume of work they had at Wendover, the weather made their tasks arduous. On the open flight line, the men endured polar temperatures coupled with strong winds. There were a good many cases of frozen extremities, particularly fingers, noses and ears. Few cases of frost bitten feet were reported. It was a tribute to the sound health of the group, as well as successful army attempts to protect the health of the men that, aside from frostbite, there was an extremely low rate of illness due to exposure. There was a mild epidemic of mumps, and a serious set of lectures on the V.D. scourge.
Four days after the group arrived at Sioux City, the officers of the group knew that the outfit was not slated to go overseas after finishing up at Sioux City. General Olds, the patron saint of heavy bombardment, gave the word at this time the 100th was scheduled to be broken up. The news was quite a blow, but Colonel Alkire’s quick and effective verbiage, plus his high standing with General Olds, saved the group and got it transferred to Kearney, Nebraska. Colonel Alkire went to Kearney in order to meet with the good townspeople with regard to hosting the group. The morning of the Colonel’s arrival he was met by members of the Chamber of Commerce, merchants, member of the local churches and the dean of a local college. Arrangements were made for clubs to host men of the 100th, and the incidentals of welcoming a bomb group were ironed out. A remark from the Dean of the college and the Colonel’s reply closed the meeting with laughter all around. "How can I protect my girls?" asked the Dean. Colonel Alkire’s instant reply was; "You take care of your girls and I’ll take care of my boys."
Colonel Alkire assembled the outfit in the theater and related the entire story, not without personal disappointment in his tone. There were men who felt relieved, there were others who felt let down. To spice what promised to be a dull future, he proposed that all officers of the 100th launch a moustache-growing competition during the three months that the group was to stay at Kearney. The gentlemen sporting the poorest lip draperies at the end of that time were to host a dinner for the more hirsute. Needless to relate, this contest sprouted some ghastly growth as well as some hitherto unsuspected talents in whisker culture.
The men of the 100th went back to packing for Kearney. The packing was well along toward completion for what was thought to be an ocean voyage. It was hastily finished for the overnight journey, and in late afternoon of January 30ththe first units entrained for Kearney. The aircrews left by rail and plane to different bases scattered over the Western United States. Some went to Blythe, California, Walla Walla, Washington, Boise, Idaho, Pocatello, Idaho, Casper, Wyoming, Pierre and Rapid City, South Dakota and Ainsworth, Nebraska. It was to be three months of almost suspended animation. Theoretically they were to instruct green crews; actually for the most part, they were concerned with the passage of time and flying enough to keep from going stale. For the ground echelon at Kearney there was plenty to occupy their time. The one story pine barracks were as the builders had left them littered with the debris of construction. The job of cleaning up buildings and grounds required several days. The barracks were not at primitive as those at Wendover, and were eventually made into comfortable quarters.
The town of Kearney was, of course, the first and most important objective of the pleasure-bent Century Bombers. Civilian buses made a route through the base at regular intervals, and they were invariably jammed to the doors. There were many eating and drinking places, but few were the bistros of class or attractive atmosphere. The ubiquitous Oasis, the Windmill, and the incredibly-named Arabian Nights were among the most patronized bars. One first class hotel, The Fort Kearney, and the Midway, a rambling shabby hostelry, did capacity business day in and day out, while a few broken-down rooming houses catered to the overflow. One of the most memorable of Kearney’s institutions, not excepting the State College, were the fantastic Nifty Rooms, which catered to the hopelessly un-enterprising.
Momentous news for the 100th broke in mid-February. Furloughs averaging nine days (depending on travel time to the particular hometown) were authorized. The first vacationers left February 15th, and other followed on their heels, until virtually all members of the group had enjoyed what was to prove a farewell visit home.
Toward the end of March, when belief solidified in the ranks of the group that it would never go overseas as a unit, word began to circulate that Col. Alkire’s assurance at Sioux City was to be fulfilled. On March 30th, the first of a series of showdown inspections was held, and the men carefully laid out their worldly GI possessions to be checked. Two weeks later the combat crews began to trickle back to the group from their places of hibernation. They were issued new planes and equipment. On April 20th, all of the original crews, thirty-seven in number, took off on a mission to Hamilton Field in California, led by Colonel Alkire. This trip was designed as a checkout on high altitude formation flying, but was hardly a fair test, in view of the fact that the crews had little experience in this type of missions, and were stale from three months of comparative inaction. This mission was a great disappointment and proved unfortunate for the entire group, for it cost them their highly esteemed commander, not by a flying accident, but by influencing his removal from command of the group. All but three of the planes completed the mission, which included a flight out over the Pacific Ocean and a climb to 30,000 feet, much higher than a large majority of the crews had previously flown.
From April 21st to 26th while the mission was away, the soldiering on the base was intensive. There were daily drills and inspections, two showdown inspections, a shelter tent-pitching exercise (few of the men had ever seen a pup tent erected) and a formal retreat and a parade on the apron. The group groaned though calisthenics’ in the morning for the first time since the early days at Walla Walla.
The air echelon returned to Kearney dejected at the showing that had been made. Group Headquarters learned officially on April 26th that Colonel Howard M. Turner, a former Washington staff officer and assistant to General Arnold, had arrived to assume command. The men were informed by Alkire himself, at an assemblage in the gymnasium. It was a typical Alkire speech, in which there was no word-mincing and no excuses. "I am being kicked out because of alleged incompetence," said the Colonel. "It may be that the charge is just, but I am depending on you men to vindicate me in the end. You are going into combat soon, and I have every confidence that your conduct will prove I wasn’t such a bad leader, after all." Perhaps there were no actual tears shed by his listeners, but there were many a tightened throat among the men he had treated with consideration and to whom he had been so accessible. There were doubtless many silent resolves to uphold Pappy’s faith in the group when the outfit finally hit action. How well such resolves were kept is a matter of record in the combat history of the 100th.
On May 1st, 1943 the air echelon of forty planes and crews took off for Wendover, where they spent twenty days of advance training. The non-flying contingent left Kearney for Camp Williams, Wisconsin, for a week of hectic training in warfare ala infantry. The men lived in tents pitched between the oaks and pines. They dug trenches, fired on the range with M-1 carbines and Thompson’s, handled explosives and climbed mountains. On May 9th, with quickening tempo, the ground echelon sped to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, the great port of embarkation. For more than two weeks, there were clothing inspections, issues, barracks bag packing and unpacking, roll calls and passes to New Brunswick, Elizabeth and Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and to the Empire City, New York. Men returned to camp just often enough to renew their passes and duck out again through the hole in the fence, where the bus line had instituted a regular stop. It was a last fling with a vengeance, and the men sopped up enough bright lights and bourbon to last for a long time.
On May 26th, the earth-bound personnel of the outfit boarded trains at Kilmer, made a miserable, cramped trip to Jersey City, ferried across the Hudson River and after hours of waiting in the pier shed, filed aboard the former Cunard White Star Liner "Queen Elizabeth," now His Majesty’s Ship. All through the afternoon of the 26th, that night and following morning, troops and supplies poured into the vast hull. Close to 0100 hours on May 27th, tugs nudged her hull out into the stream and the Queen pinged her prow for open sea. Few men of the 100th saw much of the sailing, since they were restricted below decks.
Going down to the sea had none of the glamour of a Masefield poem. The sea was placid; new rumors quickly made the rounds as the converted liner knifed it’s convoy-less way to a pin point across the Atlantic. The deck guns boomed out in practice flurries, the men munched crackers between the far-spaced meals, and small whitecaps danced from the giant’s path. Finally the ship nosed into the Firth of Clyde and nestled against the Scottish seaport of Grenoch. The sun was climbing over the railroad station as the 100th Bombardment Group arrived in the British Isles. Mist-saturated rays licked at the surface of the river and stirred clouds of lazy stream which ascended and descended. The world seemed placid and unhurried … like the seagulls gliding and wheeling in their element. The men bustled and grumbled as the harbor slowly awoke to the momentum of a new dawning. Hills rolled softly into the backdrop as a Scottish band on the dock broke into the morning with a rendition of "Take Me Back to New York." The men shouldered their bulging barracks bags and set foot to land. Before the train drew out of the station, they received their first spot of English tea, the war time concoction minus even a hint of sugar. They tasted, grimaced, drank, and were aware they had been deposited into a rigid war-time economy.
Sleep was difficult that first night – the first night most of the men had ever slept on soil other than that of the United States. They felt an ocean removed from home, and it was a lonely feeling. The trio of straw-filled biscuits which substituted for a mattress provided something far less than comfort. There was much twisting and turning until night closed in on a base at rest. The group remained at Padington just long enough to enable the men to receive their indoctrination into the ways and means of life in an English town. Northampton was a long stone’s throw away, and contained streets which taxed the ingenuity of GI drivers by their narrow, twisting routes. The British , a long suffering people of eternal optimism, possess a genius for understatement. A grueling two-mile hike up a winding hill and down narrow alley become, by some magnificent cerebral imagery – "Oh, it’s just a few turns off the first turn to the right – you can’t miss it." From Padington, the men left for their final destination. Diss was a point on the East Anglican map in the county of Norfolk. Thorpe Abbotts was a tiny hamlet tucked away behind the base, unobtrusive except for the fact that it lent an ancient name to modern arms.
On July 20th, 1943, the men stood at attention in front of the curved huts of Headquarters. The ceremony was brief. The men in blue, representing the Royal Air Force, officially turned over the base to the United States Army Air Forces. Squadron Leaders Lawson and Blomfield representing the RAF performed the ceremony. Colonel N.P. Harding, our new Commanding Officer, acted on behalf of the USAAF. Royal Air Force Station Thorpe Abbotts was now USAAF Station 139. It was now official and a matter of record. The 100th had taken over.