As I write this article, I meditate over the fact that all or at least many of you have already read or seen a story of this sort in the movies. Since our nation has entered the war, this drama has been played in magazines and newspapers countless times. However, though it is a routine task, I am still fascinated that I cannot subdue my desire to write about “The Mission In The Morning.”
As I begin these observations, it is evening in Barracks T-37, the home of thirty aerial gunners. T-37 is a barracks consisting of a wooden frame covered with sheet metal on a concrete foundation. It’s interior has two stoves for warmth, blue blackout curtains and the multiple possessions of the men living here. Perhaps I should say boys, for their average age is approximately twenty-two. We have all come back from supper with the exception of a few fellows at the American Red Cross Club or the movies. The stoves are glowing and there are groups sitting around them just as they would in a country store.
Several of the boys are working on bicycles, for here in England the bike constitutes the main form of transportation on all bases. Indeed it is routine to see even captains or majors regardless of age, pedaling around the field on them. The disbursement of the planes over a wide area of the base makes their use a necessity rather than a luxury. We see old American ingenuity as two of the fellows construct a bike from old discarded parts.
Al, the radioman and the Cassonova of our crew, is hanging up a pin-up picture of Olivia DeHavilland on the wall of our barracks which is already a harem of Varga girls, movie queens, wives and sweethearts. There is a heated discussion as a tail gunner is trying to convince a ball turret gunner of the merits of the tail versus the ball turret. In the midst of this humdrum, one of the boys is trying to get Harry James via short wave. The air is suddenly filled with a conglomeration of Portuguese news reports, Spanish tangos and the futile attempt of a screaming German propagandist to convince anyone of the “certain Axis victory.”
Upon the arrival of Ernie, a waist gunner, we learn that there is a blue flag alert which means that there is a mission scheduled for the morning. At once the barracks is in an uproar. Everyone voices their opinion as to whether or not we will go. Once engineer claims that he is certain the show will be called off for it will rain within the next two hours. He swears that his corns never lie, but the reply to this is the old standby, “Remember that you are in England.” This is very true for the weather here is more changeable in a short period of time than anyplace I’ve ever seen.
Contrary to popular opinion touted by scenario writers, the knowledge of a raid does not bring an abrupt end to whatever gaiety is going on nor the grim silence of men checking their last will and testament. Although flying over Germany offers much danger, it is not necessarily suicidal. I can explain our beliefs more clearly by quoting our own Command General Henry Arnold: “Let us know gloss over the fact that combat flying is a grim and dangerous business. The Air Force has taught the men at home the maneuvers they should execute in combat abroad. In these maneuvers a few are bound to be injured or killed, but the overwhelming proportion are better prepared to defeat the enemy.”
With the realization that sleep is needed we soon extinguish the lights. Our barracks has quite a few Northerners and I am the only Virginian. Before turning in, I decide that once again I shall give my rather worn-out speech. In the voice and manner of our Honorable Carter Glass addressing the Senate I begin. “Men, once again I remind you that there are three Virginians running this field, our Commanding Officer Col. Edgar M. Wittan of Newport News, our Air Executive Lt. Col. Thomas S. Jeffrey of Arlington and a ball turret gunner from Norfolk, whose name from sheer modesty I will not mention.” Warding off the flying shoes and ignoring the raspberries and Bronx cheers, I climb into bed with a chuckle.
Soon the barracks is dark and silent except for the occasional squeak of bed springs and the ever present snoring from a large group of soldiers. After what seems like only half-an-hour, it is 0330 hours and the Charge-of-Quarters arouses us with the usual, “Breakfast at 4, briefing at 5.” It is a cold and clammy British morning, but we force ourselves out of our warm beds, into our clothes and trudge thru the dark to the awaiting trucks, which carry us to the mess hall. Breakfast consists of fruit juice, fresh eggs, bacon, oatmeal and coffee. The talk centers around the target for today, how cold it will be at 29,000 feet and the number of missions it will make for each man. All too soon we scramble out to the waiting trucks and go to the briefing hall. Upon arrival we go to our lockers and put on our flying gear which consists of long woolen underwear, heavy socks and our Easter Bunny suits, the nickname for the electrically heated suites and shoes, plus a final covering of flying coveralls. By this time it is 0500 hours and we go into the large briefing hall.
Here, all foolishness and horseplay stops for the briefing of the day’s operations which are vitally important if we are to be successful. Except for a few jokes made by the Operations Officer, there is no laughing for we are all deeply concentrating on the briefing. When this is over, we go out to the hardstands where are planes are parked, clean our guns and check the million details, while getting into each other’s way. As always, we finish in time and sit around smoking before take-off.
Slim, one of the ground mechanics, owns an accordion and we call for a song. Following a bit of persuasion, he consents and we listen in pretended rapture of true music lovers, as he plays “East Side, West Side.” I can’t help but notice that we all become a little quiet, each thinking of home. It is almost time for take-off and after a final selection of “Pistol Packing Mama” to give us that old fighting spirit, we climb into the plane. Tom, Paul and Tex, Pilot, Co-Pilot and Engineer, go up into the cockpit; Walt and Lee, Bombardier and Navigator, go into the nose; Al, the Radio Operator goes into the radio room; Red, Pete and myself go into the waist and Buster into the tail.
The engines roar and we are soon airborne. The trip officially begins when Tex salutes Al as he comes through the radio room to check the rising of the tail wheel. This is an old tradition our crew began when we started flying together back in the states.
Soon the sky around us is thick with hundreds of other bombers, each with ten fellows like myself. Regardless whether the target is Brunswick, Schweinfurt or Berlin, in the back of our minds we are thinking of that little spot called home, which for some may be a farm in Iowa, a ranch in Texas, or in my case, the corner of Colley and Shirley Avenue watching the girls… oops, the Fords go by!