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Mission to Plauen by Eugene Spearman

Eugene Spearman, Radio Operator/Gunner in the 8th Air Force, 384th Bomb Group, 544th Bomb Squadron during WWII

Eugene Spearman, Radio Operator/Gunner in the 8th Air Force, 384th Bomb Group, 544th Bomb Squadron during WWII

Eugene Spearman, radio operator with the 384th Bomb Group, shares another of his great stories, this one about his eighteenth mission, 384th Bomb Group Mission #292D.

On this day, March 19, 1945, the Nicolai crew flew as part of the squadron that made up the low squadron of the 41st “D” Composite Group. The primary target, the Braunkohle-Benzin Synthetic Oil Plant in Bohlen, Germany, was briefed as visual only, and was cloud-covered. The secondary target, which was also briefed as visual only, was not visible, so the number three target, Vomag Maschinenfabrik in Plauen, Germany, was attacked using PFF aiming.

Mission to Plauen

Our 18th mission was to Plauen, Germany. We had flown most of our missions all together with the same crew that we trained with in Avon Park, Florida. Our bombardier, Walter Robitzki, was chosen on this 18th mission to fly with the lead crew and we were given another crewman to be the one to act as togglier and drop the bombs from our plane.

In early 1945, we didn’t have as many German fighters to worry about, but we did have plenty of flak shot at us. Walter’s lead plane was also carrying hot cameras, so they were expected to leave the formation and get back to England with the bomb damage photographs as soon as possible.

After we dropped our bombs, we stayed with the formation and started returning to our base at Grafton Underwood, home of the 384th BG. Our engineer gunner, Joe Clemis, who lives in Spartanburg, SC, kept a private log of each mission and this is what he said: “No fighter opposition. Rocket almost hit our ship. The force from the explosion rocked our ship. Mission was 10 1/2 hours, 5 hours on oxygen. Weather real bad over base, but visual over target. Saw Paris and Eiffel tower, also Brussels as we descended to a lower elevation.” Our bombardier, Walter Robitzki, and crew were listed as missing and later declared killed in action.

I had tried for years to find out what had happened but was unsuccessful. In talks with my pilot, copilot, and others in the crew, no one knew any more than I did. They just didn’t return. In 1993, when we dedicated the Heritage Museum, I asked a lady employee there if she knew or could help me find out anything about Walter’s MIA status. This employee was Mrs. Phyllis Dubois from Alysham, Norwich, England. She promised to try and find some information and write me. Later, she sent me a casualty report that showed that the B-17, No. 44-8008, was sighted over Ostende, Belgium, at 11,000 feet at 1655 hours with no apparent damage. In June 2002, while looking at a webpage on my computer, I noticed an entry asking if anyone had any information about a crew that was MIA on a mission on 3-19-45. I answered the inquiry thinking that it might be someone who knew something about Walter. I was amazed and tremendously pleased to find that it was Walter’s nephew.

Needless to say, we have shared pictures, stories, and just chatted back and forth by e-mail and letters, and still have lots of catching up to do on events that happened on 3-19-45. I just wish that Walter’s mother was still living so I could chat with her.

© Eugene Spearman, 2016

Notes

  • Walter Robitzki’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial in the UK.
  • Ostende, Belgium is less than two miles from the English Channel.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016

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Brother Billy

Chaplain Billy

Chaplain Billy

Eugene Spearman wrote some wonderful stories about his WWII experiences with the 384th Bomb Group. One person he mentioned in several stories was not a flight crew member or even part of the ground crew. But this one man’s work at Grafton Underwood touched many lives. He was Chaplain Method Billy, known to the boys of the 384th as “Brother Billy.”

Brother Billy was born December 12, 1910 to Joseph and Elizabeth (known as Baca) Billy. Joseph and Elizabeth immigrated to America from Slovakia in 1897. Joseph earned a living as a coal miner in the Midvale section of Plains Township, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth was a housewife and mother. The Billy’s raised nine children and Method, born Michael, was their fifth.

They were a religious family and Michael/Method was not the only Billy child to be called into religious service. All three Billy sons became priests: Joseph (Monsignor Florian), John (Reverend Anthony), and Michael (Monsignor Method). Four of the six Billy daughters became nuns and served as teachers: Anna (Sister Ulphia), Elizabeth (Sister Emiliana), Margaret (Sister Gemma), and Cecelia (Sister Elise). Only two daughters, Mary (the oldest daughter) and Emily (the youngest daughter), married and had children.

In 1929, Michael Billy graduated from St. Francis Seminary in Staten Island, New York. He entered the Novitiate of the Conventual Franciscan Friar in Syracuse, New York where he received the religious name, Method, and professed his religious vows in 1930. He also studied theology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Method Billy was ordained a priest on July 26, 1935. In 1936, he was assigned as a professor at St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, New York, where he remained until at least 1940, according to the 1940 census.

Method Billy enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and served as a Chaplain for four years. He was detailed as Group Chaplain of the 384th Bomb Group on SO #158 dated December 1, 1943. In addition to holding regular church services for the men of the 384th, he performed another very special service that impressed Eugene Spearman enough to write about him in several of his stories.

We then taxied out to the end of the runway and awaited our signal for take-off. Standing just outside the plane during most of my missions even in rain or snow stood a man, Bro. Billy, holding a Bible. His being there was such a blessing for me. Just knowing that someone was praying for me made me feel better.

Standing just beside the end of the runway, where we made that final check of instruments before releasing the brakes, stood a minister. I don’t know what denomination he represented, but it was an inspiration to me to see him there. And then we were on our way.

One thing that I was thankful for was that a minister or priest stood holding a Bible beside the runway just before we released the brakes and raced down the runway on every mission, rain or shine.

Chaplain Billy saying Mass

Chaplain Billy saying Mass

Father Billy

Father Billy

Father Billy blessing crew before mission take-off. This photo was published nationally. The crew was shot down on January 30, 1944. Seven of the crew were killed and three taken prisoner.

Father Billy blessing crew before mission take-off. This photo was published nationally. The crew was shot down on January 30, 1944. Seven of the crew were killed and three taken prisoner.

After the war, Method Billy was Guardian at St. Bonaventure Friary in Washington, D.C. There he pursued advanced studies and received the Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of America, after which he became a Professor of Theology. In 1957, he was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Endicott, New York, and later served as Professor of Religious Studies at Maria Regina College in Syracuse, New York. He later was assigned to Saints Cyril and Method Friary in Binghamton, New York.

Monsignor Method Billy died Nov 9, 1995. He is buried in the Saint Cyril Slovak Catholic Cemetery in Binghamton, Broome County, New York.

Photos provided by Chris Benson and 384thbombgroup.com, used with permission.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016

Mission to Bremen by Eugene Spearman

Eugene Spearman flew two missions to Bremen with the 384th Bomb Group. The first was on March 11, 1945 (that’s 71 years and 2 days from today) to a Vacuum Oil Plant. The second, and the subject of Eugene’s story, was a few weeks later on March 30. The target of the March 30 mission was a Submarine and Warship Yard Machine Shop.

Mission to Bremen

I would like to take you back in time to when I, as a 19-year-old, found myself living in a small quonset hut with fifteen other young men in the Midlands of England. The hut had eight double bunk beds in it and I had an upper bunk. Some of the young men had flown almost all the required thirty-five missions and others had flown varied amounts. The location of the base was Grafton Underwood near Kettering, England, home of the 384th BG and 544th Sqn. The larger town nearby was Northampton.

While picking cotton on my father’s hill farm near Coffeeville, MS a couple of years before, I was scolded by my father because I took so much time watching (from horizon to horizon) the young pilots flying the AT-6’s as they flew from Columbus to Pine Bluff, Ark.

Just after completing high school, I went down to Greenwood and volunteered in the Cadet program. After basic at Keesler and being scratched from making the trip to Clemson and later to Penn State for more training, I was sent to radio school in Sioux Falls, S.D., and later to Gunnery school in Yuma, Ariz., then to Avon Park, FL, where I met the rest of the nine-man crew and took about six months of operational training. Later we picked up a new B-17 at Hunter Field, GA and after buzzing the bombardier’s home at Staten Island, N.Y., we landed at Bangor, Me. Then we went on to Goose Bay, Labrador, and Iceland, and then to Edinburg, Scotland, where we turned in the new B-17. We rode in trucks all night to Stone, England, near Birmingham, which was a distribution center. Later we were assigned to the base at Grafton Underwood.

About three or four o’clock in the morning, a sergeant would come into the little hut and wake the crewmen that were flying the mission that day. On March 30, 1945, after I had already flown twenty-three missions the sergeant woke me up and said, “Spearman, be down at briefing at 4:00 am. You are flying in the Ed Nicolai crew.” I got dressed and went outside and got on my little English bike and rode down to the mess hall. We called it Tomaine Tavern. I wondered how many other airmen had ridden this same little bike. You acquired the little bikes by going down to the flight line and getting one that some previous crewman left because he did not return from the trip over Germany. After breakfast we went to briefing where the flight commander would tell us the target for the day. If it was a rough target you would hear some aw’s and groans. Today it was the submarine base at Bremen. Next the weather officer would tell us about the weather over the target as well as at the base when we returned. Then a navigation officer would talk about the route in and out of Germany.

Then with a “Good Luck Boys-Hit the Target” send off, we would file out, pick up equipment, parachutes, etc., and ride trucks out to the dispersed planes. Dressed in the heavy flight suits, I always thought everyone looked like stuffed toad frogs.

We then taxied out to the end of the runway and awaited our signal for take-off. Standing just outside the plane during most of my missions even in rain or snow stood a man, Bro. Billy, holding a Bible. His being there was such a blessing for me. Just knowing that someone was praying for me made me feel better.

And then we roared down the runway and into the air. The 384th history log showed the mission to Bremen was the 300th mission that was flown by the 384th BG. There were 39 aircraft from Grafton Underwood and the total bomb load of 500-lb bombs was 105 tons. The elevation at target was 26,000 ft and bombing was by PF. Flak was moderate and accurate. We were in the left hand wing position and made a left-hand turn off the target and were struck by flak shortly after releasing our bombs. Pilot was slightly injured when cockpit plexiglass and copilot controls were hit. Waist gunner hit by flak in upper chest but saved by flak suit. Tail gunner was KIA when flak hit the tail section. Two engines were knocked out and plane left formation and dove into some clouds and came out “on the deck.” Landed at Eye with some 200 holes in plane. Plane was called “Snuffy,” and was S.N. (serial number) 42-32106. We were crew #143. This plane, which I thought would have been scrapped due to flight damage, was later repaired and returned to service.

The pilot, Ed Nicolai, and I flew back to the USA after the tour of missions (34) was completed. I invite you to view on your computer 384thbombgroup.com for “the rest of the story.”

© Eugene Spearman, 2016

The tail gunner killed on mission 300 was William R. Peeler. It was his twenty-fourth mission. He was the first of the Ed Nicolai crew to be killed in action.

Aircraft 42-32106 went by three names: Snuffy, Worry Bird, and VOAN. After mission 300, it went back into service only two weeks later, on April 14, 1945. It flew 123 combat missions with the 384th Bomb Group.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016

Flak

As Eugene Spearman points out in his stories of his WWII missions with the 384th Bomb Group, one of the greatest threats to the flyers was flak.

In June 1944, when my dad’s crew was finishing up their final training and waiting for their assignment – to the European theater or the Pacific theater – he wrote one last letter home before starting the journey to their new base. He already knew all about flak, and it was already a concern. These are a couple of excerpts from that letter:

There is a lot of talk that we are not going to England, as we thought, but will find out at our next station.

There is one thing nice about not going to England, and that is we won’t run into as much flak anywhere else.

I want you to know that I haven’t waited this long to start asking God to help me.  That is one thing I have never been too proud to do, and I think it helps a lot, too.

My dad, George Edwin Farrar, and the Buslee crew ran into heavy flak on his very first mission on August 5, 1944. The following excerpts are from a report of that mission in the Park Ridge (Illinois) Advocate dated September 1, 1944. Pilot John Oliver Buslee was from Park Ridge. The report shows an example of the damage that can be caused by flak.

Although mortally wounded, the bombardier of a B17 Flying Fortress calmly reported his injury to his pilot and then released his bombs on the target in a remarkable exhibition of sheer courage and presence of mind during a recent American heavy bomber attack over Germany.

The bombardier, 1st Lt. Marvin Fryden, 23, 6719 North Lakewood, Chicago, died later in an army hospital after his bomber, the “Tremblin’ Gremlin,” had reached England with only two of its four engines functioning, its fuselage riddled with more than 100 flak holes and with more than half of its crew wounded.

The “Tremblin’ Gremlin” was flying in a fortress formation attacking the German airfield at Langenhagen, north of Hannover.  As the American heavies started their bomb run over the target, a heavy barrage of anit-aircraft fire suddenly exploded all around them.

One shell exploded at the side of the “Tremblin’ Gremlin’s” nose, and a fragment whirled through the bomber’s metal skin and struck the bombardier in the chest below his left shoulder.  Lt. Fryden swayed and nearly toppled over from the force of the enemy steel entering his body, but he regained his balance and clutched his bomb release more firmly.

“I’m hit”, was all that the wounded airman reported over the inter-communication system to the pilot’s compartment.

Perhaps he was thinking of the slogan for bombardiers at this station – “Get the bombs on the target” – for he pressed the bomb release that sent the explosives, carried in the belly of his Fortress, plunging toward the German airfield…Lt. Fryden had accomplished the job that had brought him into central Germany.

The flight from England to the center of Germany was made without incident, but when the Fortresses initiated their bomb run in the vicinity of the target, ground defenses opened up with a thick curtain of flak that burst about the planes like black mushrooms popping out of the ground after a heavy rain.

A fragment from the same burst that wounded the bombardier, hit the navigator, 2nd Lt. Chester A. Rybarczyk, 21, 1118 Elum St., Toledo, Ohio behind the ear, but the injury was not serious.

“It was popping all over the place during the few minutes we were in the bomb run,” said Lt. Buslee, describing the flak.  By the time we made our turn away from the target, more than half the crew had been hit and suffered injuries of varying degrees.”

The engineer and top turret gunner, Sgt. Clarence B. Seeley, 22, of Halsey, Neb., was the next of the nine-man crew to be hit.  A jagged piece of steel ripped through the lower part of his right leg above the ankle.  Another burst of flak alongside the nose sent hot metal flying into the pilot’s compartment.  The pilot, 2nd Lt. Arthur J. Shwery, 20, Route 2, Janesville, Wis., was hit above the eye, and cut, while a fragment bounced off Lt. Buslee’s thigh, however, merely breaking the skin and inflicting a bruise.

The sixth crew member to be hit was the waist gunner, Sgt. George E. Farrar, 22, 79 East Lake Terrace, S.E., Atlanta, Ga.  He was cut on the cheek and a small piece of flesh was torn off one finger.

While its crew was having its bad moments, the big silver-colored ship was taking a heavy pounding.  The right inboard engine was hit and ceased to function; the radio compartment was riddled with holes and the radio equipment destroyed; the trim tabs that control the plane’s balance, was shredded; the hydraulic brake system was shot out, and part of the oxygen system was eliminated, necessitating that the men up forward use emergency supplies or tap other lines.

Probably the fact that the radio operator, Sgt. Sebastino Peluso, 20, 2963 West 24th Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., was bending over attending to a chore, saved him from becoming a casualty when the flak pierced the sides of the big bomber and so thoroughly smashed up his radio compartment.  More than a dozen flak holes ringed his section of the ship.

Only the bombardier and top turret gunner were in need of immediate first aid treatment during the return trip, and the navigator, Lt. Rybarczyk, did as much as possible for Lt. Fryden, who retained consciousness during the entire mission.  Sgt. Seeley attended to his own leg wound.

The left inboard engine went out as the “Tremblin’ Gremlin” reached the English coast and Lt. Buslee headed for the nearest airfield.  With his brakes gone, he was faced with a ticklish landing, but he brought the plane in nicely on the concrete landing strip and slid it off onto the grass to reduce the speed of the freely-rolling uncontrollable wheels.

The other members of the crew not already mentioned, and neither of whom was touched by the liberal quantity of flak the German gunners planted in the sky over Langenhagen, were Sgt. Erwin V. Foster, 24, 356 West Water St., Elmira, N.Y., the ball turret gunner, and S/Sgt. Eugene D. Lucynsky, 24, 7307 North Dort Highway, Mt. Morris, Mich.

Lt. Fryden was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Fryden, 6719 North Lakewood, Mrs. Marilyn Fryden, lives at 2410 West 51st St.  He was a graduate of Tuley High School and Central College, and worked for a cement company in Chicago as a laboratory assistant before entering the service.  He was commissioned a second lieutenant October 10, 1942, and was promoted to first lieutenant October 9, 1943.

To see what flak looks like, click here to watch a flak training film for WWII pilots on YouTube. Thank you to Carl Lustig, son of 384th radio operator, David Lustig, for pointing out this great video to me.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016

A Typical Mission by Eugene Spearman

Eugene Spearman, Radio Operator/Gunner in the 8th Air Force, 384th Bomb Group, 544th Bomb Squadron during WWII

Eugene Spearman, Radio Operator/Gunner in the 8th Air Force, 384th Bomb Group, 544th Bomb Squadron during WWII

Eugene Spearman, radio operator with the 384th Bomb Group, shares another of his great stories. He starts with an explanation of how this one came about.

In 1944 and 1945, my parents were very concerned because their three boys were in combat in WWII. The eldest son of Creston Young and Claudine Hyde Spearman of Coffeeville, Mississippi, Creston Hyde, was in the South Pacific on Leyte and later Okinawa. The middle son, Dwight, was wounded just after D-Day in France, and the youngest [Eugene] was flying missions over Germany. I was the baby of the family, and my mother wrote so many letters, or V-mail, to me that I decided to write her describing a typical mission. I knew as soon as I finished the letter that it would never get by the censors, so I put it in my duffel bag, thinking that if the worse happened, she might still get to read the letter. I found the letter later. It was called:

A Typical Mission

The morning of February 15, 1945, started early for me when the sergeant shook the small bunk I was sleeping in and said, “Wake up, Spearman. You are flying today in Nicolai’s crew in B-17, No. 242. Be down at briefing at 4:45.” I, along with several other sleepy crewmen, struggled out of bed and hurriedly pulled on clothes. The place was Grafton Underwood, near Kettering, England, in the Midlands, home of the 544th bomb squadron, 384th bomb group, 2nd wing, 8th Air Force. Outside the small Quonset hut, I picked up the little English bike and pedaled down toward the mess hall, or chow hall. I had often wondered before on similar trips to the “Tomaine Tavern” (as the chow hall was known) just how many flight crewmen had owned the little bike I was riding. It was never necessary to buy a bike, nor did we have to wait any time after reaching the base before acquiring one. All we had to do was go down to the flight line and pick up one that Bill, or Pete, or Joe rode down yesterday or the day before, but did not get back across the Channel to make the return trip to the Quonset huts.

After chow I rode on down to the flight line and entered the briefing room. Our briefing was conducted by several operational officers. First, the group commander told us the target for the day. If it was a well-known place like Berlin, Hamburg, Schweinfurt, or Leipzig, a low “Ah-h-h” mingled with a few moans usually echoed around the room. Today, it is Dresden. After giving us a description of the target, the type of target, and other pertinent data, he listed the first and second alternate targets. The intelligence officer then took charge and pointed out the probable locations of flak, and fighter concentration we would encounter. The weather officer told us the cloud conditions over the target, and the expected weather conditions at the base at our estimated time of arrival back to Grafton Underwood.

A navigational officer pointed out our route in, the time of the “Bombs Away,” and the return route. With a wave of the hand and a “Good Luck, Boys,” we would rush in and put on the heated suits, wobble out to the small jeeps that carried us to the dispersed planes. I always thought everyone else looked like stuffed toad frogs in those suits. After reaching the planes, I noted that for this particular mission, our plane, #242, was christened “Stardust.” The fact that she had 29 small bombs painted on the fuselage did not impress me that she would make #30 roundtrip any easier. In fact, I shuddered to think what some German civilians would do to anyone who rode her down on German soil.

Our cargo consisted of several magnesium incendiary bombs and six 30-pound demolition-type bombs. In a few minutes we had pulled into the line of traffic of about 40 B-17’s, awaiting our turn to pull on to the end of the runway. The roar of engines as they struggled to lift the heavy load of fuel and bombs was enough to awake all the residents of the Midlands. It was an impressive sight for this country boy.

Standing just beside the end of the runway, where we made that final check of instruments before releasing the brakes, stood a minister. I don’t know what denomination he represented, but it was an inspiration to me to see him there. And then we were on our way.

All whom I know who flew missions were superstitious. My superstition was a candy bar. At the briefing, they always gave us a candy bar – Milky Way or Snickers. I always placed the candy bar on the small table in front of me and ate it just before we touched down at home on the return. On this particular mission, the ball turret gunner came by my position and before I could stop him, ate my candy bar just after takeoff. To me, that was a major disaster. It was as if all my luck had run out. He resembled one of those ostriches with that candy bar going down his throat, and I would have shot him if we had not needed the belly gun to protect our plane underneath.

It was a long flight in, with considerable flak, but few fighters sighted. A diversionary flight of B-24’s up the North Sea toward Hamburg had caused Herr Goering to use up much precious fuel to try to keep the submarine pens at Bremen and Hamburg from being attacked, while some one thousand B-17’s struck straight across Germany to Dresden.

The Germans used two types of flak. One pattern type is when they just shoot the 88MM guns into the air over the area they wish to protect. Another is the tracking flak where they use their radar to stay on the target as it moves above them. Oddly enough, the pattern flak was most effective. At the end of the 20th century, when they vote on the man of the century, I will cast my vote not for Einstein, Anderson, or Von Braun – but the man who invented this: Chaff! On a radar scope, it looked just like a B-17, and it saved a lot of country boys from having to get out and walk at 30,000 feet altitude.

It was a long flight back, but 11 hours after takeoff, we were back at the base. This mission was not one of the most important of the 8th Air Force, nor was it our worst. It was just one of many that broke the back of the German nation, and it convinced the German people as well as their leaders that they lost the war due to the strategic air power of the Allies.

© Eugene Spearman, 2016

Eugene Spearman’s words mean so much to me. They help me understand what he and the other boys of the 384th Bomb Group, like my dad, experienced on a typical mission during WWII. What Eugene doesn’t mention in his letter home is that February 15, 1945 was his very first mission.

On that mission (#267), the primary target was a synthetic oil plant in Bohlen Germany. The Mission Summary from 384thBombGroup.com describes that mission:

Heavy fog closed in quickly during takeoff operations, preventing almost half of the force from flying. The 384th Bombardment Group (H), initially ordered to provide all three squadrons of the 41st “B” group, formed itself into two reduced squadrons – lead and low – during assembly. They also picked up some aircraft from the 379th BG. The primary target was “visual only” so the secondary was attacked using radar aiming. Weather at the home base remained bad on their return, so all but one aircraft landed elsewhere.

The secondary target attacked was the railroad marshalling yards in Dresden. The Nicolai crew, actually aboard aircraft 42-102459, aka “Little Kenny,” landed away at Seething Airfield, Station 146.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2016