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Remembering: From Moses to Cleven

By John Gibbons
Splasher Six Volume 35, Spring 2004, No.1
Cindy Goodman, Editor

I arrived in Moses Lake in August 1943, and met my flight crew. There were two incidents that happened before we were sent to England that made quite an imprint on my combat flying. We did a lot of cross country flying and as we were returning from a midnight mission, I lined up in preparation to land, the landing gear malfunctioned and only one came down. I did land the plane and lost only a wing tip and two props. I gained a lot of respect and faith in the b-17 and also enhanced my confidence that I might become a reasonable pilot.

The second was on the way to England, via Sioux City and Hastings, Nebraska. I picked up a magazine with an article by Bernie Lay on Bucky Cleven. (I think the original was in Harpers magazine and later condensed in the Readers Digest from where I read the article). I cut this article out and read and reread it many times. Lay described the pilots as “chip on the shoulder” and “spit in the eyes” kind of guys. By then we had heard rumors of the Bloody 100th. I knew I was far from a “spit in your eye” guy, so I had better learn to spit and find a chip for my shoulder. Of course I prayed I would be assigned to an outfit other than the 100th.

We left Hastings for England on New Years Eve, 1943. Flew to Maine, Iceland, Stonewall-Preswick, Scotland. Saw and flew through any weather we could find that was anywhere near normal. Picked up our orders and as a first shock, found that we were assigned to the 100th. The second shock came when we arrived at the 350th Squadron at Thorpe-Abbotts, Bucky Cleven’s squadron. We met Bucky the next day, except it was not Cleven. He had been shot down a couple of months earlier. My first impression was that the new Bucky, Major Bucky Elton, was not typical of the people described by Bernie Lay.

For some ungodly reason they sent us to Northern Ireland for ground school or perhaps it was to get us used to the lousy weather. On returning to Thorpe Abbotts I found out I would be flying co-pilot on my first mission as indoctrination to combat and my second mission as a pilot with my crew.

On the morning of February 25, 1944, I heard for the first time the loud reveille of the Corporal, drop __ and grab your socks, Gibbons, you are going on a mission! To this day I can still hear that awakening. I was to be co-pilot to Johnny Lautenschlager. Went to the briefing and heard everyone moan as they pulled back the curtain and the red tape reached to Regensburg. Lay’s description of war became real. I wasn’t much help to Lautenschlager, but I did become indoctrinated.

March 3rd I was awakened by my favorite Corporal. The briefing shocked us all as the ribbon reached all the way to Berlin. Our crew would not be flying with the 100th that day, but as a composite group and we would be low squadron for the 95th Bomb Group. Great! My first mission and I would have to find them, or hopefully they would find me. The weather was awful. Halfway through the mission, my radio operator heard a re-call. Our leader, however, kept taking us through the clouds to Berlin. We were warned not to break radio silence. I wondered what he was doing. We flew over Berlin at 26,000 ft., mushed over the target, dropped our bomb load and headed back to England. The B-17 doesn’t fly well at 26,000. From a pilot’s point of view, it’s like dog paddling in a pool of oatmeal. I understand our leader, a Major, received a silver star for that mission. I would have thrown the book at him for disobeying orders.

March 4th, again the big push to Berlin. We were briefed for a thousand bombers on this mission. I won’t dwell on it. I started the mission as Tail End Charlie, and wound up #2 on the lead. I do recall at the debriefing it was concluded we were attacked by 121 German fighters. That bothered me. I wondered who was counting them and not shooting at them! From the French coast to Berlin it was air to air killing! Then Berlin in a blanket of flak like I have never seen before.

The next two missions were also to Berlin. Afterwards we were visited by Gererals Spaatz and Doolittle. They had to visit to kill some time while their staffs got us more planes and crews. They were great Generals that first night. Doolittle told great stories and, as I recall, could also hold his whiskey. They gave us a stand-down so we could practice, and practice we did. Major Elton called for formation flying. I was on his right wing and he called “tighten up”, so I put my left wing close to his right wing gunner. He yells, “What are you doing, Gibbons, trying to kill me!” It was a thought, but I pulled back and flew a loose formation so he would feel safe.

The stand-down ended March 19th. We were assigned to operation Crossbow. 352 bombers were to attack V-1 sites on the coast of France. Briefing says to expect a little flak, and drop bombs while over water. Veterans proclaimed this “No Ball” a milk run. After Regensburg and four Berlin missions, maybe we deserved a “Milk Run”.

On the hardstand that morning was a brand new B-17 waiting for us. The ground crew named her “Miss Irish”. This was a short light to the coast of France, and as we started the bomb run, we got hit on the right side just behind the wing. The B-17 seemed to go higher with the impact. Our bombardier did get our bomb load released while I was trying to get the plane under control. I got enough control to get her down to 8,000 ft., and discovered we were heading back towards the target area. It seemed they were throwing everything in their arsenal at us. Turned east and got out of the target area. Over the channel we dumped everything possible to lighten the load. The top turret Sergeant’s chute had been sucked out of the plane while he was tossing his guns out the bomb bay doors. I gave him mine, as I truly didn’t believe I would need it. I saw an airfield (a fighter field) as we got over the English coast, and told the crew to bail out. They preferred not to; I guess no faith in their chutes. (We worried they might have been full of flak holes.) Personally, I thought they were crazy. On landing approach, I thought about the one wheel landing at Moses Lake, and prayed that the B-17 stayed in one piece long enough to land. Fired flares, said Hail Mary’s, and touched down.

We vacated the plane quite fast. The hit was obviously from a German 88. The radio operator had been blown out of the plane into the channel. The hole in the side and top of the plane was about 12×8 and, of course, smaller holes were all over the fuselage. The plane was too damaged to salvage so it was scrapped after its only mission. While the fighter group looked in amazement at the B-17, the group fed us and arranged quarters for us. The flight surgeon arrived with a bottle of scotch. I told him we wouldn’t need it. He replied, “By morning you will.” What insight that man had. Got back to Thorpe Abbotts the next day.

Regensburg, 4 Berlin missions and then the direct hit on the “Milk Run”…it was quite a baptism into the air war. I did not encounter very many “spit in your eye” kind of pilots. I did see fear in the eyes but it was overcome by an abundance of sheer guts and determination. Perhaps Lay should have had a few more missions. I knew I had survived the worst and it didn’t get any better.

I do not write of the horrors of the air war. So much of that has been written. The sight of bombers blown up, engines on fire, bodies in the air, counting chutes and never counting ten, coming back to half empty mission huts…that was hard on morale. I very vividly remember coming back after the March 6, Berlin raid, and Johnny Lautenschlager, who had indoctrinated me on the Regensburg raid, was no longer in the hut. He had been shot down as he was finishing his tour. As an old sage said, “War is Hell!” I don’t know about that as I’ve never been to hell, and I don’t intend to visit the place. I do know that war isn’t the solution to world problems.

I grew up in the small town of St. Mary’s, Kansas that had survived dust storms and the great depression. Never got further than Salina, Kansas to the west or further than Kansas City, Missouri to the east. Probably wouldn’t have traveled that far if I hadn’t learned to hitchhike. Now I was seeing Europe.

Went to Berlin nine times. Nearly became a citizen of Berlin when a German fighter jockey knocked out my windshield at 19,000 feet. It was 55 degrees below zero. Now that’s cold! Hit the deck and was escorted back by a P-51. On the way, flew over a Nazi flight school with the troops in formation. Our gunners opened fire. Arrived home base safe.

The trips were long. Saw Leipzid, Buchen, Posen, Augsburg, Pennamundi, home of German heavy water and atomic scientists, Merseburg, Dorfmund, Munich 3 times, Ulm, Friedrichshafen, Frankfurt, Rassel, and several others. Fighter protection was getting much better, but flak a lot worse. I was most fearful of the fighters. A group of bandits would gather off the right side of the group. They would fly along the group for about a minute. I would imagine Fritz and Hans were debating which of us they would take out. Fritz would say leader, another the #4 plane, another the #6 plane and another the #10 plane. Hans would always select old Tail End Charlie. Hans became the top war ace. They would come at the group from 12 o’clock high or 6 o’clock low. All missions were not that bad. I remember going to bomb a fighter base shortly before D-Day. No flak, P-51’s had control of the sky. Jeffrey had lectured us on dropping bombs on the leader. He wasn’t satisfied with our past patterns. We arrived over the target, leader dropped his bombs, Red Blakeman’s had a malfunction, and he managed to salvo. There was criticism of the crews that failed to follow Jeffrey’s instructions until the film was developed. The group had a fair hit on the airfield. Blakeman’s bombs had wiped out the fuel dump. Red flew 35 missions, then transferred to Division Headquarters, I presume to find targets of opportunity.

Another pleasant and satisfying trip was again to southern France. No flak. No fighters, and bombing from 500 feet. I had only buzzed once and that was St. Mary’s, Kansas. An old codger that lived a few blocks from my mother’s house told her I flew so low I sucked the soot out of her chimney. We didn’t get that low on the mission, but dropped our cargo of guns to the French underground. You could see them rushing out of the forest to get the cargo and rushing back into the forest. It was a delight to see.

D-Day came along and we were on the last flight of the day. We were to bomb forward for the Gliders. As we came off the bomb run, we could see hundreds of Gliders being pulled by their mother ships. What a sight. You absolutely had to admire their courage. I thought, “We never had it so good”.

Shortly after D-Day, and thirty missions, eight pilots, 2 from each squadron, were called into headquarters. Col. Price told us that squadron commanders and operations officers were completing their missions and they needed experienced people to take over command. We were offered 30 days leave stateside if we would volunteer for a second tour. We accepted. Randy Chadwick proclaiming himself to be “Duke of Clayborne Parish”, and I were from the 350th Squadron.

The 30 days in the states were wonderful. Arrival, jubilant, departure, sad and worrisome.

We were shipped to the East Coast for some tests. Five of our eight were declared to have combat fatigue. I don’t know what the test was supposed to prove. I was cleared to go back to England. Probably found out I had no brains. I did get to spend a weekend in Atlantic City and, as luck would have it, got caught in the hurricane of 1944. While there I did attend the Miss America Pageant. (I still think Miss Florida should have won.) Left the flooded hotel and got on the Mariposa troop ship back to England. It was on the Mariposa that I med Bud Anderson, a P-51 pilot fighter ace, going back for his second tour. He couldn’t understand why anyone would go back to the 100th a second time. I guess he confirmed the test. I lacked brains! Bud and his friend, Chuck Yeager, were assigned to the 357th Fighter Group and had escorted the 100th Bomb Group on a few occasions.

I arrived back at Thorpe Abbotts in September 1944. Found out that the training command had sent a group of Majors and Captains and they had taken over all the billets. It was discouraging, as we had no crew, no jobs, nothing to do but loaf. Played lots of craps and probably learned to drink.

Going to the club for dinner and perhaps shooting some craps, we were stopped by a Major driving a jeep, who jumped out and wanted to know why we didn’t salute. I replied that I didn’t recognize an officer driving the jeep. He asked if I had seen the Major emblem on the bumper? I apologized and saluted. He ten asked the “Duke” the same question. Randy replied that he wasn’t saluting any “PISS ANT’ (his favorite Louisiana saying) jeep! They cleared me, but Randy got the 104th (disciplinary) and restricted to quarters for 30 days. I recalled my first mission to Berlin. A major gets the Silver Star for disobeying orders and Randy gets the 104th. It seemed to me a strange cadet discipline! It didn’t bother Randy. He was a commercial artist and made some extra cash painting logos on our A-2 flight jackets. Not long after his 30 days he had combat fatigue and went home. Of the eight, two were still in the 100th, one in the 349th, and myself in the 350th.

Nothing to do! It was absolutely boring. I recall in cadets, don’t ever volunteer for anything. Guess I didn’t learn the lesson.

Finally, in December 1944, the Battle of the Bulge, they assigned me to ride the right seat as Deputy Commander, thus my second tour began. I rode that seat to Freesburg, Mannhiem, and a couple of other places. Fighter cover was good but flak increased. I was fairly confident, as after the March 9th hit, that lightening would not strike twice.

On my 36th mission, I flew the same position. The target was the Ruhr. Flak was intense. The leader made two passes but failed to bomb. I asked the bombardier if he had the target? He replied, “yes.” I broke radio silence and told the group we had the target, and to form on our plane. They did, and we went in and bombed. Col Price was awaiting my landing and, of course, greeted me with why I had taken such action? I guess I grew up that day and politely replied that the group didn’t’ seem to have a job for me and I didn’t have a crew, so why not send me to the South Pacific or the states where I might be of some value? He replied, “I’ll see to it.” I didn’t like the tone of his voice, so I assumed my life in the 100th was over, plus whatever else they had in mind. About a week later I was named to 350th operations officer and promoted to Captain. I’m sure that Rosie (Major Rosenthal, Squadron Commander) saved my hide or at least my military career. I set up the crews to fly the next mission which was to Hamburg, where Rojohn did his epic landing feat. I lost the majority of my crews on that mission, primarily to flak, and concluded very rapidly that I would rather fly the missions than assign crews. I wasn’t to be.

The rest of the second tour wasn’t bad. Fighter escort was outstanding. I prayed that lightening would not strike twice!

My 49th mission was on April 7th. I was designated to fly right seat and lead the 100th to Buchen. We were briefed that we might encounter jets. We did! There were only a few, not like the 121 MEs that attacked us on the Berlin mission. We suffered on this mission to Buchen.

Upon arrival back at base, I was again met by Col Price. This time he was a little more pleasant. He told me I had been through enough and this was the end of my tour. I argued that I really wanted to fly my 50th mission, but the answer was no, and ordered me on leave and not to return until the war was over. I obeyed, went to the beaches of southern England, laid on the beach, drank some scotch, and gained 10 pounds.

All my time was spent on the beach where I got rid of my pallor. VE Day came, and I laid on the beach, said some Hail Mary’s and thought to myself, “It’s over”.

I returned to the base and in a few days Bucky Cleven arrived. I can’t say he was my idol, but certainly he had a great impact on me. I sat on the grass around the squadron headquarters and was amazed at the loyalty and respect this Major received from his men. Its best described by Sgt. Jack Sheridan in his book, “They Never Had It So Good.”


As the snow fell on the countryside of Norfolk a very good thing came to the Squadron. Major Gale W. Cleven came back from the other side and sat with his men again.

The Major, who had gone down on the 8th of October, 1943, came back. He had gone down on his twentieth mission with a tremendous record of achievement and glory behind him. When he had gone down he had taken with him the heart of the Squadron as well. All the months that had slipped by since he had languished behind the barbed-wire of German camps. Now he came home to us. A little thinner and a little harder – but home.