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On Target – Page 1

Charles E. “Chuck” Harris History

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On Target
The WWII story of a B-17 Crew with the “Bloody Hundredth”
8th Air Force
by Charles E. (Chuck) Harris

Introduction:

On Target is written for the crewmembers of a B-17 Flying Fortress of WWII, their families and friends. I was their pilot.

Our story is that of the crew of “Sack Artist,” a B-17 or the of the 8th Air Force, 100th Bomb Group often known as the “Bloody Hundredth.” The 100th was stationed at Thorpe Abbotts, in East Anglia, England. The name “Sack Artist” (along with the intended “pin-up art” was never painted on the nose of a B-17 since the crew changed planes several times during their combat tour. The crew continues to think of themselves as the “Sack Artist” crew.

The “Bloody Hundredth” has been and continues to be, the subject of many books and articles. It is not my intention to repeat of amplify the story of the famous group, but to relate the events and happening of our crew.

We begin with the assembly of the ten-man combat crew at Ephrata, Washington in September 1943, and conclude with the crew’s 29th mission to Magdeburg, Germany on August 5, 1944.
Charles E. Harris
Colonel (ret.) USAF

The Crew

Pilot:
2nd Lt. Charles E. Harris, 26, Payette, Idaho
Co-Pilot
2nd Lt. Manly W. Hall ,25, Moundville, Alabama
Navigator
2nd Lt. Morris Lewis, who was replaced by
2nd Lt. Lloyd W. Coartney, 23, Westfield, Illinois
Bombardier
2nd Lt John Dimel, Ohio
Engineer:
Sgt. Norman Howden, Jr. ,22, Boston, Massachusetts
Radio Operator:
Cpl. Leighton E. Gaard, 20, Altadena, California
Right Waist Gunner:
Sgt. Joseph H. Blume, Jr. ,22, Newark, New Jersey
Left Waist Gunner:
Sgt. Peter R. Zyskowski, 19, Schenectady, New York
Ball Turret Gunner:
Sgt. Kenneth L. Nowland , 30. (We do not have his address)
Tail Gunner:
Sgt. Joseph L. Oyler, 22, Alger, Ohio

Getting Together

This is the story, written many years later, of ten young Americans who were brought together by the Army Air Corps on 1943 to form a B-17 Combat Crew for training and further assignment to an overseas combat theater. During their operational overseas tour, some of these flyers were replaced due to combat injuries and other operational matters. This is a consolidation of all memories and written records of several of these young men who are now, in 1999, proud senior citizens.

Ephrata Army Air Force Base was located in the middle of Washington State, approximately 100 miles southwest of Spokane. Another training base was at Moses Lake, about twenty miles southeast of Ephrata. Both were classified as Phase Training Bases where combat crews were assembled and given their initial training in preparation for overseas movement. Both had B-17 aircraft, commonly known as Flying Fortresses. All officers and enlisted men assigned to combat crews had received basic flight and gunnery training prior to arriving at Ephrata.
Assembling our new crew for the first time was a rather emotional experience as we could envision what was ahead of us. Ken Nowland, assigned at the ball turret gunner, was the “old man” of the crew –in his thirties, married and with a family. In addition to being older, Ken was not a small man and we were amazed that he qualified for and accepted the very cramped and isolated ball turret position. The ball turret on a B-17 is a spherical appendage under th4e fuselage. The gunner enters through a hatch at the bottom the plane’s waist, and sits in a curled position. Once inside, with the hatch door closed, the gunner is in a lonely world of his own. He revolves his turret and guns in all direction to fight off enemy aircraft. It takes a special man for this assignment.

Manly Hall, assigned as co-pilot on our crew, was our only married officer and the only member from the south. His wife, Inez, accompanied him on his various military assignments and soon became a good friend. For Manly the co-pilot assignment was very disappointing as he had finished his cadet pilot training and been designated as a fighter pilot. Unfortunately the Air Corps was urgently in need of bomber pilots, and many of Manly’s class was reclassified as co-pilots. Prior to assignment to our crew, Manly had no B-17 training.

Our Navigator, Lt Morris Lewis, was only with us until we transferred to Ardmore, Oklahoma; Lewis remained in Ephrata . 2nd Lt. Lloyd W. Coartney, from Westfield, Illinois, was assigned to our crew upon our arrival in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

Bombardier John Dimel, form Columbus, Ohio, was probably our only true extrovert. A big guy, John soon made himself known wherever we went. Jaunty and confident, he openly boasted that he was going to be the best damned bombardier in the Air Corps. He did become one the very best and ultimately became the Group Bombardier for the 100th Bomb Group to which we were assigned upon arrival overseas.

Our gunners were exception of Ken Nowland and Joe Blume were very young single men, not long out of high school. Norm Howden, engineer and gunner, was never a close member of the team , though he stayed with the crew until we completed our combat tour in England. Rather happy go lucky, Norm did his job. We lost contact with him after we left England in 1944.

Leighton (Jack) Garrd, from California, was our radio operator, and a good one. He seemed to have the natural talent required for this position and took his assignment in stride. The radio compartment in a B-17 was in the middle of the plane, with the front door into the bomb bay and a rear door into the waist compartment. A single 50-caliber machine gun was mounted in the roof of the compartment with a special seat provided when firing upward. Radio equipment was installed along the side of the radio compartment. Being a radio operator was a very demanding position.

Our two assigned waist gunner were Joe Blume from New Jersey and Pete Zyskowski from New York. Pete was the youngest (19) on our crew, rosy-cheeked and innocent, and did his job well. These two fine young men – competent and reliable – were typical of the thousands of young men in the Air Corps. Unfortunately they were wounded on our second combat mission.

Joseph Oyler, from Ohio, was our tail gunner. Another “youngster” Joe had his feet firmly planted. He had a good sense of humor, and was a popular member of our crew. Like the radio operator and ball turret gunner, the rear gunner was isolated from the other crewmembers with a wide view from the rear window over the gun turret. Joe was with us until seriously wounded on our 6thmission. We lost track of him after war but understand he died in 1988.

Phase training for all crewmembers included both ground and flight school. In general, ground school was conducted in the mornings and the crews then assembled for flying in the afternoon. It probably did not take long for the crews to appreciate that they were not flying with an experienced pilot. After graduating from cadet flying school, pilots received about two months of B-17 transitional training and were then assigned to phase training fields such as Ephrata. There is little doubt that the pilots proficiency was graded daily by the crewmembers. Bumpy or hard landings, less than smooth maneuvers in the air (particularly formation flying) was painfully obvious. The training at Ephrata did, however, enable the crews to get to know and evaluate each other and to start the slow process of integration into a smooth working team.

Flying at Ephrata became pretty much routine – some flights were navigational, a few included practice bomb runs but most were aimed at getting the crew to work together and to learn required procedures. All flights were limited to a specified area of Washington State. However, on one navigation mission in September, we “unintentionally” strayed and found ourselves looking down from a rather low altitude spectacular Grand Coulee Dam. That broke the routine! For me, it was of special interest since, since as an engineering student, I had visited the dam in 1939 when it was under construction.

In early October 1943, all crews at Ephrata were reassigned to Ardmore, Oklahoma, another phase training field. For most of the crews it was a long ride on troop train to Ardmore. A fortunate few were assigned to fly the B-17’s being transferred to Ardmore.

The Air Base in Ardmore was a few miles north of the city in wooded country. Ardmore is a nice city about half way between Oklahoma City and Dallas. Dallas became the preferred city for three day passes. Good bus service from the field.

Upon arrival in Ardmore we were introduced to our new navigator, Lloyd Coartney. Lloyd was a breath of fresh air for us. From the farmlands of Illinois and a graduate in Agricultural engineering, Lloyd was the “good guy” on our crew – a non-smoker and non-drinker. His slow way of speaking and contagious smile were just what we needed. As a navigator he was tops – always cool – and with an excellent technical mind. As Joe Blume later described him, Lloyd was “precision personified” a wonderful; attribute for navigator

The training was essentially the same as Ephrata. Fortunately several flying officers, including Brigadier General Armstrong, had just returned from Europe, mostly from the 305th and 306thGroups. They immediately changed the flying instructions to reflect their combat experience. Formation flying was emphasized using the 8th Air Force formations. This was a major change for us and not an easy one to learn. As the pilot, I found it difficult to fly in the low squadron as it meant looking upward at the leas plane. It was all too easy to lose sight of the horizon as the sky above gave little reference. When flying into he high squadron the pilot was looking generally downward at the lead plane with the horizon always in the background. Live gunnery practice was performed over the Gulf of Mexico, near Galveston, Texas. This also provided navigation and bombing training.

For gunners, targets were towed past the training formation providing them the opportunity to fire at moving targets. Since tight formation flying had been found to be imperative in combat flying these exercises over the Gulf of Mexico provided excellent training for the pilots, all of whom were very inexperienced. It was a real challenge and the first few practice missions found our B-17 galloping all over the sky. Flying at the rear of the formation was the most difficult; crewmembers in the rear of the plane were really bounced around. The first flew formation flights for them must have been rather frightening and no doubted appreciable airsickness.

In addition to the flight to the Gulf there were practice bombing runs to the various bombing ranges near the base as well as night flying. Our training at Ardmore over the following weeks slowly changed us into a more experienced crew. This phase of our training was extremely beneficial. The thought of combat in Europe was always in the back of our minds, and provided great incentive for each of us to get the most from our training.

One on the things most pilots enjoyed was called “buzzing. – flying a tree top height. It was never sanctioned by the Air Corps but was a well known diversion. Oklahoma was ideal for this as we could easily find isolated areas where there was little population or build up and little chance of getting caught! On one occasion, we were buzzing in a remote area over a long meadow with a farmhouse at the far end. As we charged down the at perhaps 15 or 20 feet the door of the house opened and woman stepped out carrying a large tub of laundry. When she saw our plane she panicked, dropped the tub and dove into the house. No doubt there was one farm lady who no longer had respect for the Air Corps. For us, of course, it was a big joke.

During our Ardmore assignment we received several weekend passes and found that Dallas was a great city for fun and relaxation. Since Oklahoma was “dry” state the place to go was Texas. Bootleg liquor was always available in Okalahoma at a cost. Of course our B-4 bags always had space for a bottle when we retuned north to Ardmore.

Ardmore gave us our first look at military intelligence. We were briefed on combat conditions in Europe, the strength of the German Air Force, etc. One secret briefing was especially enlightening when we were informed of the German rocket base at Peenemunde and their development of various rockers. Little did our crew realize that we would be in London to see the first V-1 (buzz bomb) attack, and that our first mission would be to attack a rocket launching site on the coast of France with the code name “No-ball.”

Upon completion of our phase training, we were given leaves for a trip home before overseas assignment. This was a very emotional visit for us – and our families. We returned from our trips, reassembled, and were given last minute briefings and train tickets to Kearney, Nebraska to pick up our new B-17 for the trip to Europe. Our training was complete; the big challenge lay immediately ahead.

We had been together as a crew for about four months. I considered myself extremely lucky to be in such a fine group of young men from widely diverse backgrounds. With the exception of Ken Nowland (who was in his thirties), we were all in our twenties. We were extroverts, introverts – and everything in between. There did not appear to be a “problem child” in the crew. We all recognized the challenges ahead, accepted our responsibilities as a part of a team, and kept our fingers crossed for the future.

U.S. to England

Upon arrival in Kearney, we had transportation to the Army Air Field. As we drove through Kearney it appeared to be a nice typical mid-western town. The area was flat as a pancake. We were taken to our billets and instructed to report to the flight line the next morning.

We saw the group of B-17G’s that were to be flown to England. For all of us this was our first view of the new G Model which was easily recognized by the nose twin turret. Other obvious changes were the large Plexiglas nose and the enlarged plastic canopy for the tail gunner. The additional forward fire-power was to compensate of the head-on fighter attacks that, over the past year, caused so many losses for the 8th Air Force over Europe. Bombardier John Dimel was very impressed by this power turret which would be his baby.

The next day, February, 2, 1944, we were issued our orders for the overseas movement. Our destination was Grenier Field, New Hampshire. The plane we were to ferry was number 42-31895. As a matter of interest, this plane (which we called 895) eventually ended up with the 100th. We flew it only to North Ireland.

100th Bomb Group records indicate that 895 was one of twelve planes lost on December31, 1944. That would be the heaviest loss sustained by the 100th since the tragic loss of 15 planes on the March 8, 1944 mission to Berlin. (We can only speculate if 895 was the last B-17 lost in 1944.

Upon receipt of our orders we were assigned a check pilot for a couple of practice flight to familiarize our crew with the G-model before departing for overseas. This later model had somewhat different flight characteristics from the F-model we had used in training. Of particular interest was that the landing speed was somewhat higher – in other words, it was a little “hotter.” Needless to say we were all excited as departure day arrived.

Several planes were in our group as we headed east the next morning. Most of, not all, of us had come from Ardmore. After loading our gear, checking the plane, and climbing aboard, the control tower gave the OK to taxi to takeoff position for the trip to New Hampshire. We were not the first to takeoff that morning.

We took off in a westerly direction. The first few seconds were normal. However as we started our climb, Manly and I realized was something wrong. Whereas the normal climb rate of a B-17 was between 500 and 1000 feet per minute depending on the load, we were only climbing about a 100 feet per minute. We had been in the air for perhaps five minutes but were only 500 feet in the air! We wondered what could be wrong. As this was our first flight in cold weather. It took us a few moments to realize that our problem was icing. Had we been briefed on the possibility of icing we would have recognized the symptoms much sooner.

B-17’s based in the United States normally had what was known as “de-icing boots” along the forward edge of the wings. The boot was somewhat akin to a heavy inner-tube activated by an air pump so that it pulsated. This pulsations was designed to break up the ice on the wings. We knew that de-icing boots were removed from all planes headed to combat ad the rubber would be extremely susceptible to enemy damage. The forward edge of an airplane wing is critical to the airflow over the wing, and hence the flight characteristics of the plane.

After several minutes in the air – climbing very slowly – we finally reached a relative safe altitude. We were indeed fortunate. Had we observed the icing condition during taxing we would probably have aborted the flight. We could see the ice very slowly breaking off. When we reached Grenier Field a few days later, we learned that one of the planes in our group had crashed that morning with no survivors. We can only assume if was from the icing conditions.

On a cross country flight such as this our navigator determines the required heading to our intended destination, allowing for known wind conditions. All B-17’s were equipped with and automatic pilot, properly called “automatic flight control.” This equipment enables the plane to maintain the desired heading and altitude as set into the equipment, a so called hands-off procedure. The pilot and co-pilot were required to set – and change – throttle settings to maintain the desired altitude and speed. Lloyd, our navigator, and Jack, our radio operator, were the key performers on the cross-country flight.

From Kearney to Grenier Field was about 1300 miles – a seven hour flight. With Lloyd constantly monitoring our position and Jack on the radio, we were all enjoying the flight. Strictly routine. Our ground speed was 175 miles per hour.

Perhaps five hours into the flight, the oil pressure on engine #2 suddenly went to zero. Manly and I were able to feather the engine, which meant taking it our of operation so that it would not “windmill.” We were now on three engines. As our plane was new with only the hours required to fly it from the factory, we wondered if another engine would go out. Manly and I decided we should land at the nearest airfield which was in Erie, Pennsylvania. The Erie Municipal Field was small and locate in predominately industrial area at the edge of the city. Fortunately they had a control tower which gave us permission to land.

The only runway was short, obviously designed for old DC-3’s and small planes. This would require us to make a short field landing on three engines. We landed OK but really burned up tire rubber by heavy use of the brakes!

We taxied to the small control tower and operations office. By that time the office force as there to meet us. This was the first B-17 they had seen, and the first four-engine plane ever to land at their airport. Once inside the operations center we discussed our situation with them. Then the phone rang. The office girl answered the phone, then turning to me asked, “Are you Lt. Harris, this call is for you?” I couldn’t believe it, we had been on the ground only a few minutes and I was getting a phone call.

“Lt Harris, this is Major — with the Military Air Control Center. Why did you land at Erie?” (How had they located us so quickly) I stumbles through a short description of what happened. “Well, Lt Harris, don’t you know that a B-17 flies on three engines? Why didn’t you know that a B-17 flies on three engines? Why didn’t you go on to your destination? I think you used damn poor judgment.” I had no response; I had just received my first chewing our by phone! We’ll try to get a repair crew down to you from the Rome, New York Depot (250 miles away.) Get hotel rooms in town, and keep in touch with the Erie Airport.” The airport people could not have been nicer and suggest a hotel in Erie; transportation was arranged. When we walked into the hotel in our sheepskin jackets and flying helmets everyone really stared at us. In 1943 airmen in this uniform were seldom, if ever seen in Erie. As the Erie airport was not equipped to handle four-engine planes, it is unlikely they ever saw a crew like ours again.

A couple of days later a four-man maintenance crew arrived from Rome. New York, in an Army maintenance vehicle. It was obvious that they were not particularly happy. With having to drive to Erie. They fooled around with the bad engine for a least a day and then gave us their analysis; a complete internal engine failure with no oil remaining. As they did not have the facilities or equipment to change the engine, they decided that with a full replacement of oil the engine would operate long enough to get us into the air. We were instructed to fly to Syracuse Army Airfield, an hour’s flight, where the engine would be replaced. After extended discussions with the maintenance crew, we worked out the best possible procedure to get back into the air. It would be a chancy situation, at best, on such a short runway.

The next morning the ten of us loaded into the plane; none of us were looking forward to the takeoff. It was normal B-17 taxiing procedure to taxi with all engines running, using the outboard engine for turning. In this case we taxied without starting the bad engine. We moved into takeoff position at the very end of the runway; every inch of it would be needed. Manly set the wing flaps and brakes for an emergency takeoff. We ran-up and tested the three good engines, started the bad engine, then went to full power on all four engines. Manly released the brakes. The plane accelerated quickly and left the ground just before we reached the end of the runway. After we passed safely over the building at the end of the runway, we shut down the bad engine and climbed very slowly on three engines toward Syracuse.

During any takeoff, the pilot, co-pilot, and engineer are busy concentrating on their individual responsibilities. The remaining seven crewmen just “sweat it out.” During the Erie takeoff, however, it must have been nothing but a frightening experience. They all knew what the problem was. I’m sure there was a lot of praying and finger-nail biting going on. I can imagine the relief when we became air-borne and cleared that building. That relief was shared in the cockpit! The flight to Syracuse was uneventful and we made a good three engine landing.

It took four or five days for the engine to be replaced, we had nothing else to do but enjoy life in the city. We felt we had earned it. With the engine replaced and checked out, we flew on to our original destination, Grenier Field in Manchester, New Hampshire where we would be processed for the overseas flight.

Our short stay at Grenier Field was made noteworthy by a snowstorm the first or second night there. This was the first snow Manly Hall (from Alabama) had ever seen! Watching Manly and Lloyd cavorting in the snow like a couple of kids was a sight to be remembered.

Our secret orders for the overseas flight were issued on February 10, we were to proceed at the proper time via North Atlantic Route to the European Theater of Operations, London, England.

One the 12th we were awakened early for departure. Since it had snowed again during the night, 895 was covered with snow. After breakfast our crew our entire crew pitched in to clear the snow and ice. It was a big job and took us three or four hours. After the Kearney experience we made sure there was no snow or ice remaining on the wings. It was noontime when we taxied out for takeoff. Our destination, Goose Bay, Labrador, was a thousand miles north.

The flight to Goose Bay was routine and enjoyable. The flight took about six hours and took us over Presque Isle, Maine, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Very desolate but beautiful country. As usual, Lloyd brought us right into Goose Bay. He had used “dead reckoning” and visual observation as there were no navigational aids in that part of North America. The sun was setting when we arrived at the snow-covered base. Were now in very cold snow covered country.

A Canadian Air Force truck picked us up and drove us to the mess halls for supper. It had been a long time since breakfast; we were tired and hungry. Crews normally remained over night in Goose Bay, then proceeded the next morning to Europe. However, we would not be that lucky. After supper we were taken to the Operations Center for a briefing. A major storm front existed over the Atlantic, with strong tail winds. They wanted to get us to our destination, Nutts Corner, Northern Ireland, before the weather turned worse. We were to fly over the storm which meant a high altitude flight. This didn’t make us very happy as we were all tired. But we weren’t issuing the orders they were. After briefing and refueling we took off shortly after midnight.

The flight across was made at 25,000 to 30,000 feet. This altitude increased out ground speed appreciably (about 225 miles per hour as compared to a speed of 150 if we were to fly at a low level.) Also we had a strong tail wind, a real advantage. The advantages were somewhat offset, however, by the fact that the entire crew would be on oxygen continuously, and were all dead tired. At 30,000 feet a person can survive only a few minutes without oxygen. The basic problem for all of us was that if one fell asleep and inadvertently pulled off the oxygen mask or hose, there would be no warning. Lack of oxygen is painless – one just goes to sleep and death follows quickly.

Because of this critical danger, we instituted a “call in” for each crew member every 5 to 10 minutes. This must have been pure hell for those in the rear of the plane who had nothing to do and were dead tired from the long day and snow removal at Grenier. Each gunner remained at his designated position to best utilize the oxygen system.

Security requirements called for radio silence over the Atlantic. Navigation was by dead reckoning or celestial observations; there was nothing to home in on.

After reaching altitude on the prescribed heading to Iceland, we put the plane on automatic pilot. The pilot and co-pilot watched the instruments, monitored the intercom, and made crew calls. As we were no longer required to have our feet on the rudder pedals, Manly and I adjusted our seats to the far-back position which allowed us to stretch our. This was much more comfortable.

As daylight arrived we could see the ocean as we passed over the storm. Lloyd continued to check out flight route, but with radio silence and only water to look at, it was a difficult job. In late morning (British time), we finally sighted land – a beautiful sight! As we crossed the coastline, Lloyd quickly identified our position as over South Ireland, considerably south of our planned course. I was given the new heading for Nutts Corner, North Ireland. Ireland was green and a beautiful sight. (Of interest is that although South Ireland was neutral in the ear, Allied planes were not supposed to land there. However the Irish apparently did not interfere with Allied planes making emergency landing.)

As we approached Nutts Corner, we were able to tune in their control tower for landing instructions. We had difficulty understanding the Irish brogue, but caught enough to know the landing direction. As we touched down I routinely applied the brakes. In our fatigue Manly and I had stupidly forgotten to readjust our seats and we could barely reach the brake pedals! I ran off the runway before getting 895 stopped. Fortunately, the ground was firm and there was no damage to the plane. More than somewhat embarrassed we got back on the runway and taxied to the control tower. I am sure the control tower was thoroughly impressed by our magnificent landing. They were polite and made no comment. Although I have never asked, the other crew members no doubt had plenty to say to each other. But we had arrived safely in the European Theater of Operations. (ETO)