The Birth of a Mission

by Sgt Walter Peters

A Heavy Bomber Station, Britain — Two second lieutenants, recent arrivals from the States, walked to the Officers' Club bar and ordered whiskies.

"Make it a double," said one of them. "Sorry, sir, no whisky is sold during alerts," said the bartender, Cpl James Mohafdahl of Dayton, OH.

"Oh, I see," the other lieutenant mused. "When'd the alert come through?"

"About 15 minutes ago, sir. Right, Dan?" The corporal turned to the other bartender, Pvt Daniel Costanzo, an ex-cowboy and saloon owner from San Antonio, TX.

"Yeah, about that long," Costanzo agreed.

The lieutenants smiled. "Well, we may as well get some sleep then," one said. They walked out.

"It's funny," the corporal said, "but I can practically always tell when there's going to be an alert and, better yet, whether the raid'll go through. It's just instinct. That's all. Just instinct. Ask Tiny. He'll tell you."

Tiny was a 6-foot, 260-pound former foundry worker, Pvt Frederick Tard of Everett, WA. He was also assigned to the club staff, but that night he was on pass.

"They're a swell lot of boys here," the corporal said. "There's no rank pulling. I've seen lots of them come in fresh from the States, and I've seen lots of them go on their first mission and never come back. There used to be one fellow, a lieutenant. He always used to come in and order a drink and never talk to anybody but me. He'd rather talk to me than to a lot of majors around. He went down on a raid. He always said: 'Corporal, you take care of me. And believe me, I always did."

Another lieutenant walked in and asked for a whisky. Costanzo explained again that no hard liquor was sold during alerts. Beer was okay, though. The lieutenant bought a beer.

The corporal took up where he'd left off. "I don't know whether the lieutenant is a prisoner of war or not. But I'd sure like to meet him again. He was a nice guy. One thing, all these fellows know where to come when they want something. They see me, Jimmy. If it can be gotten, I get it."

A sign on the wall behind the bar read:

MEMBERS OF THE WORLDS BEST AIR FORCE ARE SERVED AT THIS BAR

Costanzo looked our way, paused for a moment and said: "We don't sell whisky the night before a raid."

Officers and the FO

Beyond a one-lane winding road from the Officers' Club, deep inside a single-story building, was the intelligence room. Large maps of the fighting fronts adorned the walls, and colored markings indicated important enemy targets and other information about them.

Except for the maps, the intelligence room might have passed for a board of directors' office. In the center was a long, well-polished table, surrounded by eight comfortable leather chairs. In the corner was a radio playing soft, slow music transmitted by a British Broadcasting Corporation station. An S-2 first lieutenant relaxed in one of the chairs, his legs slung over its arm. A staff sergeant walked in and out of the room incessantly, always looking very serious, always carrying what appeared to be important documents.

The sergeant walked out of the room, then returned. "The FO is in, sir,'" he said.

"Okay," replied the lieutenant, '"call the colonel."

Three other members of the S-2 staff walked in — Maj F J Donohue, chief of the group's intelligence section, a former Washington (DC) lawyer; Capt Wayne Fitzgerald of Kalamazoo, MI, the group bombardier, and Capt Ellis B Scripture of Greensburg, IN, the group navigator.

The three men sat down and watched as the sergeant tracked a narrow red tape from the spot on the map that represented the base in Britain to the enemy target that was to be bombed the next morning. The tape followed the exact course as directed by the field order.

Presently a tall, middle-aged man walked in. He was a good-looking guy with a friendly smile. This was Col John Gerhardt of Chicago, commander of the group. With him was Lt Col David T McKnight of New York, the air executive officer of the group. McKnight was short and had a personality that makes friends quickly.

Each colonel was eating a bar of candy and they offered a bite to everyone in the room. Col Gerhardt stood before the map and studied it. Then he asked for a copy of the field order. A cat strolled by lazily. Lt Col McKnight stroked her back until she lifted her tail and purred. When the field order was brought in, the officers began to study it.

Superstition and Fate

The base theater, which also houses the chaplain's office and serves as a church on Sundays, was filled to capacity that night, as it usually is. The sergeant gunners and officers apparently liked the film, because they laughed a lot and occasionally somebody whistled. The picture was "Duke of West Point," featuring Louis Hayward and Joan Fontaine.

Inside the Aero Club, run by the Red Cross, enlisted men were reading home-town newspapers, playing billiards or standing in line by a long counter for an evening snack. A round-faced sergeant with a neat black mustache, Vincent Barbella of Brooklyn, NY, was drinking a Coca-Cola and doing a lot of talking. With him was T/Sgt Harry D Cooper, a radio gunner from Dayton, Ohio, and T/Sgt Robert E Bellora, a top turret gunner from Ellwood City, PA.

"Tomorrow's my 12-B," Barbella said, then laughed. "To hell with it. I won't call it 12-B. I'm not superstitious. I'll call it straight number 13. I certainly hope we go tomorrow, though," Barbella said, "That will make it about the sixth time I've been trying to make my thirteenth."

Cooper smiled. "You'll make it tomorrow, I'll bet anything on that. The night is clear and the odds are that it'll stay that way until morning."

"It's not the raids that bother me," Barbella said. "It's these damned abortions. People don't realize how much there is to making a raid. They figure all you do is jump in a Fort and up you go. They don't figure that weather out here can change within a half-hour, or that after a guy is up there for a couple of hours, something can go shebang with an engine or the oxygen system, and then you have to turn back."

At an adjoining table a sergeant was reading a newspaper. Barbella turned and read the headlines. "Berlin," he said. "Boy, is the RAF giving them the works now. Boy, would I like to go there. It'd be nice to say I'd been over Berlin."

Bellora spoke up. "For all you know, you may get the chance. You never can tell, That's where they may send us tomorrow, but I doubt it. Tomorrow will make me 21 missions. Hell, it doesn't matter where you go. If it's going to get you, it'll get you over Bremen or over Emden or over Kiel or anywhere. It's all up to fate, I think. But I'm not taking any chances. I think my two .50s have a helluva lot to do with this fate racket."

Enlisted men from the theater filed into the Aero Club when the movie was over. A short, frail sergeant stopped and whispered something in Barbella's ear. Apparently it was some sort of a private joke. Barbella laughed so enthusiastically that he had to stand up.

"What the hell's eating you, man?" Cooper asked in a friendly tone.

"Oh, nothing. Nothing," Barbella replied. "But I'm going to eat somebody's stuff out if we don't go out tomorrow." He laughed again.

Disappointment and Hunger

Tall, bespectacled 1st Lt David B Henderson, in charge of the base photographic section, walked into the laboratory looking very sad.

"He wouldn't let me go. Said maybe it'd be okay next mission," Henderson said. He had just returned from the S-2 room where he'd asked Maj Donohue if he could go on the next morning's mission. In civilian life Henderson worked for the Ashland Refining Company in Ashland, KY. His job on the base was an important one, but you got the impression that he'd be happier as a sergeant gunner.

There was an aroma of fried onions in the laboratory. It came from a room where a couple of staff sergeants were packing film into the combat cameras. Sgt David B Wells of Trona, CA, walked into the room with a loaf of bread.

"No, sir. It's nothing like this back in the States. If we're hungry, we just scrounge some grub and prepare it right in here. Wish I had a nice piece of steak to go with those onions. A guy gets hungry at this time of night. I always get hungry before missions."

"You ain't kidding, bub," said T/Sgt. Berton Briley of Wilson, OK. Briley was a musician in civilian life. Now he is a combat photographer.

Lt Henderson walked into the room and poured some coffee into a large tin cup. "There's nothing like a good hot cup of coffee at night. Too bad I can't go out in the morning."

Combat and Comradeship

There was no electric power that night in one of the squadron areas, so a group of lieutenants sat around inside their fiat-roofed quarters and chatted by candlelight.

Four of them — Lt Robert Sheets of Tacoma, WA; Lt Jack Watson of Indianapolis, IN; Lt Elmer W Yong of Roachdale, IN, and Lt Joseph C Wheeler of Fresno, CA — had joined the squadron only that week. They had been in the Fortress that buzzed the Yankee Stadium in New York during a World Series game in September. Mayor La Guardia raised an awful stink when that happened. The boys were hauled over the coals for it by their CO when they reported to their field in Maine.

"All of that looks funny now that we're going into actual combat," said one. "It's the first mission that counts. Once I get over the hump on that one I'll gain my bearings. I'm just itching to get that first one in.

A first lieutenant called Hapner, who kept talking about his home town, Hamilton, OH, stopped cleaning a carbine.

"I know just how you feel," Hapner said. "You change a lot after about the first five missions. I don't know how to put my finger on it, but you sort of become more human. You become more appreciative of the men you fight with and the men you live with. It's particularly bad when you lose some of the men on your crew, or if one guy finishes his ops ahead of you and then leaves the crew.

"My pilot just finished his ops and he's off combat now. He was a swell guy. He always said that as long as I was doing the navigating and he was holding the stick, we had nothing to worry about. That guy should have gotten the Congressional Medal if anyone ever should.

"Kit Carson went through more hell than anyone I know of, but he never complained. He was a very religious guy and talked about his mother an awful lot. He never talked about himself, though. Except for the way he talked, you'd never get it from him that he was from Texas.

"Kit lost his original crew. They went off without him once and never returned. He was really shook up by it. But would he complain?" Hapner turned as if expecting somebody to say something, then answered his own question. "No, Kit never complained."

"They assigned him as co-pilot on the Brass Rail. That's how we got on the same crew. The pilot at that time was Lt John Johnson. Johnson was married and had a helluva pretty wife in East St Louis, IL. On a raid over Kiel, a 20-mm exploded against Johnson's side and killed him. The Brass Rail nose-dived about 4,000 feet and everybody in it thought sure they were goners. Ammo boxes and everything else were flying all over the plane. By some miracle, Kit was able to level the ship off. Except for Kit the whole crew would have been goners. He got the DFC for that. I really miss that guy."

The new lieutenants listened carefully. They had met Kit just before he left the squadron, but up to now they hadn't realized what he'd been through. One of the lieutenants said: "He certainly didn't toot his own horn, did he?"

"Well, neither will you after a while," Hapner said. "Combat does something to a man. You'll see."

Hapner began to undress. "Well, guess I'll turn in. It may be a long one tomorrow."

Armament and the Men

It was 2230, and the weather was still holding up. A long single file of men, almost all of them with torches in their hands, walked out of a Nissen hut. They were the armament men. They talked, but in low tones. Most of the officers and gunners had turned in, and armament men respect sleeping men of the combat crews.

An armament man said: "Maybe we won't have to unload again for a change. It looks too good out tonight, even for English weather."

Two sergeants stopped playing blackjack for a minute and talked about the armament men. Almost everybody else in the hut was in his bunk. The two sergeants were sitting on the lower section of a double bunk. A spotlight hung from the spring of the upper bunk, throwing just enough light on the cards.

"I suppose we ought to turn in," said one. "It may be a tough one tomorrow. When it comes right down to it, these armament guys really have the toughest racket. It must be hell on them to load up and then have to go out and unload when a mission is scrubbed. I hope it isn't scrubbed tomorrow."

From the corner of the room came a loud protesting voice. It was a Southern voice. "Damn that fire. Who the hell wants a fire on at night? It only goes out before you get up, and then we're cold as hell."

"Aw, shut up, you rebel," another voice answered.

The Southern boy complained again. "Well, I don't want to be going on any missions with a cold, Somebody ought to throw water on the fire."

The sergeants who were playing cards stopped the game. One of them spoke up, "You're liable to blow the place up if you throw water into that stove now, boy."

"I don't give a damn," said the Southerner.

Dogs and the AAF

It was 0400 and all the combat men were sound asleep. An excited voice bellowed out of the PA system.

"Attention all combat crews! Attention all combat crews! Breakfast until 0445. Breakfast until 0445. Briefing at 0500. Briefing at 0500."

In the kitchen of the combat mess, two cooks were standing by a stove with pans in their hands, They were frying eggs for the men scheduled to fly that morning.

"I don't know why it is," the short cook said, '"but about every dog in England seems to have found a home on this base."

"You' ll find the same thing on all the bases," the other cook said. "Even the RAF has its share of dogs. Some of them have seen more combat than a lot of guys."

"You know, I was thinking," said the short one, "almost every new crew brings in a dog from the States. Now, if some smart apple of a German spy wanted to figure the Air Force strength in Britain, all he'd have to do is figure how many dogs there are on the bases and then multiply it by 10."

The other cook gave the short one a disgusted look. "You're as crazy a guy as I've ever met. Who the hell's going to chase all over Britain counting dogs? Besides, you've got to figure how many of these dogs get in the family way as soon as they land here. Trouble with you is, you read too many detective stories.

The short cook grinned. "Aw, I was only thinking," he said and went on frying eggs.

No 25 and Herky Jerky

Briefing was over. A half-ton truck was rolling along the runway. It was about 0600, but still very dark. The truck turned into a narrow road and stopped at a small shed. Then about six men jumped out and went inside. About 25 sergeants were cleaning caliber .50s on long benches, Above them were signs reading:

WITHOUT ARMAMENT THERE IS NO NEED FOR AN AIR FORCE
Lord Trenchard, Marshal of the RAF
Sgt. Barbella was cleaning his guns alongside the top turret gunner on his crew, Dean Hall, a tall, slim boy from New Jersey. Hall and three others from the crew of the Herky Jerky were making their 25th mission that morning. The sergeants carefully enclosed their guns in burlap bags and headed for the hardstand.

A Baby and a Mission

It was five minutes before stations. Capt Rodney E Snow Jr of High Point, NC, walked over by the tail of the plane and stood there for a moment. It was a ritual with him, just as it is with a lot of other men who are flying in this war.

Snow's bombardier, Lt George Lindley of Seattle, WA, was smoking a cigarette and telling the left waist gunner about his baby son. The baby was born on Oct 16 and Lindley was sweating out a picture that was supposed to be on the way over. The mission didn't seem to bother him, but the absence of the baby's picture did.

In the ground crew's tent, a little off the hardstand, two other men from the Herky Jerky were debating whether they'd even get off the ground that morning.

"No 7 was always my lucky number, and I think this is the seventh time we're trying for this mission. So I guess we'll make it," said the co-pilot. He was a big strapping fellow, Lt John Merriman of Spokane, WA. Everybody on the crew razzed him about his large belly and somebody kidded him about being pregnant.

"No, that's what I got for being a chow hound, I guess," Merriman answered, taking it seriously.

Snow called on all the men to get into the plane. Then No 1 engine was started. No 2 followed and 3 and 4 began to roar next. The plane taxied up to the edge of the runway and in a few minutes it was airborne. And that was the beginning of the mission.

This story originally appeared in YANK, the Army weekly.
This version was sourced from The Best From YANK The Army Weekly, selected by the editors of YANK, published by E P Dutton & Co, Inc; ©1945 by Franklin S Forsberg; pp 205-208.
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