I recently connected with family of 384th Bomb Group, 546th Bomb Squadron navigator George Alan Purchase. Scott Hahn and Fred Terzian shared a story of Alan Purchase’s wartime experiences with me, a story Alan had shared with them and that Fred had polished up as part of a WWII documentary that Alan was presenting to the residents of a senior living center in California.
George Alan Purchase was assigned to the 546th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), per AAF Station 106 Special Orders #18 on 21 January 1945 as a Second Lieutenant. He was later promoted to First Lieutenant. Alan completed sixteen combat missions with the 384th Bomb Group from his first on 14 February 1945 to his last on 20 April 1945.
Alan’s story, “My First Mission with the 8th Air Force During World War II,” is an excellent story and provides a great deal of detail regarding the life of an airman in WWII. It is now a part of the 384th Bomb Group website’s Stories page.
Alan’s story covers his stateside training before entering combat, his journey to the European theater, acclimating to England, his pre-mission routine, details of his very first mission, which was a rough one, details about a few more difficult missions, and a post-war visit to Germany.
While I strongly advise you to take a few minutes and read Alan’s entire story, as it’s a great read and very well written, I am going to concentrate here on the detail Alan has provided regarding the accommodations at Grafton Underwood, the pre-mission routine an airman experienced getting ready for a combat mission, and what participating in a mission was like.
Keep in mind, this detail is from the perspective of an officer and the enlisted man’s routine would be slightly different.
Also, keep in mind the following quotations are from George Alan Purchase as he wrote them and then documented by Fred Terzian.
Alan described his living accommodations in a Nissen hut on his base at Station 106, Grafton Underwood in the English Midlands as,
Officer’s quarters were in prefab buildings with corrugated metal sides and roofs. Each housed 24-32 officers in double deck bunks, heated by a central coal fired potbellied stove. Because the midlands are very cold and damp in winter, I “requisitioned ” extra blankets, folding some double, so I had eight layers to crawl under. They were heavy but I was reasonably warm. Unfortunately, earlier residents had shot holes in the roof of our building, so rain and snow leaked in.
Nissen huts can be seen in this photo of 384th Bomb Group airplane armorer Paul Bureau at Grafton Underwood.
Some enlisted quarters were similar, Nissen huts with bunk beds, with or without holes in the roof, but some of the enlisted men lived in large tents rather than corrugated metal buildings. One of those tents housed the enlisted crew of John Hunt. The crew decorated the doorway of their tent with their crew name, Hunt’s Henchmen.
After arriving at Grafton Underwood, Alan Purchase learned to drink “warm, weak, and bitter” English pub beer, and also “had to learn to drink scotch since bourbon was in very short supply.” He explained that the base always had an ample supply of scotch from the regular B-17 “training missions” to Scotland.
After a week of flying around the area to get familiar with the terrain, base location, and weather conditions, his crew was ready for their first mission. By then, Alan could finally consider himself a “fly boy” and was,
…ready to go out and help save the world from the evil empire. At age nineteen the thought of injury or death was not a consideration. I felt fatalistic. What was going to happen would happen.
In his story, Alan goes on to describe what it was like to prepare for and participate in a B-17 combat mission.
Wake up and briefings
Wake up came at 3:30 in the morning, breakfast at 4:00, briefing at 4:30. The briefing room was a long building with folding chairs and a raised platform at the end. A map of northern Europe, hidden by a curtain, covered the wall. The briefing officer pulled the curtain back dramatically and a loud groan came from the audience. Our target was to be Nuremberg, about as far into Germany as we could go, with a route that zigzagged diagonally across the country to cause confusion about what would be our ultimate target. We would be flying over Germany for a long time. That was heady stuff for a wet behind the ears 19-year-old.
The separate navigator’s briefing was at 5:30 where I was issued maps before going to the flight line by 6:00 am. We picked up our flight gear, parachutes and escape packages and reported to our plane. Being the newest crew, we were assigned the oldest and coldest B-17 on the base, but we were excited to finally be flying a real mission.
Get dressed and outfitted for high-altitude flying
First, we put the flight suit over our uniform wool pants and shirt. It was followed by the electrical suit, the insulated flight jacket, pants, and boots, plus gloves with silk liners. It regularly gets to minus 30-50 degrees F at 25-30,000 feet, in an uninsulated cabin with undependable heat. The only thing between us and the outside was a thin aluminum skin. Next came the helmet with earphones, throat mike, the “Mae West” flotation vest and then the parachute harness. Finally, the oxygen mask was clipped to the helmet. The whole process took a while, and everything had to be done just so. It is hard to make corrections in the air.
Board the B-17 Flying Fortress
After pulling ourselves up through the front escape hatch, (something I could never do today), the pilot, copilot and engineer climbed up to the cockpit while the bombardier and I [the navigator] went into the nose compartment. The radio man, waist gunners, belly gunner and tail gunner had an easy entrance to the rear of the aircraft behind the bomb bay. It was time to get organized with maps and other items, and get plugged in. The electric suit went into one jack, the nose mike into another, the headset into a third and the oxygen mask hanging from my helmet will go into a fourth when we reach 10,000 feet. With three or four lines connected I am careful when moving about, but I was able to reach the “cheek” gun across from my navigator’s desk in case of fighter attack.
Taxi, take-off, and join the formation
At seven am we rolled onto the taxi strip with other members of our squadron. After takeoff climbing to higher altitudes, we circled our field numerous times as we formed our squadron and then group formations. Through the clouds we can see aircraft from neighboring fields and hope they are able to keep in their areas of the sky.
After forty minutes of circling, we headed for the rendezvous point to join our wing and other groups participating in the mission. With several hundred planes in the air precision timing is mandatory.
Leave the safety of England for the continent and enemy territory
The English Channel looked rough, France itself was quite pretty, and then, after another hour in the air, we enter Germany. During this time, we had been escorted by what we called “our little friends”, P 51 fighters based in France. But shortly after entering Germany we are on our own. Looking down, the German countryside was peaceful and pastoral with neat farms and small villages appearing from time to time. But we knew we’d meet with hostility if we were forced down.
There are heavy concentrations of anti-aircraft guns in the region we entered Germany and “flak” (small pieces of steel) darkened the sky. Fortunately, we are high enough so most of the guns could not reach us. We then faced flying for more than two hours from the northwest to the south east of Germany, with the threat of fighters all the way.
Finally, we saw Nuremberg, surrounded with more anti-aircraft guns. We drop to 23,000 feet in altitude for better bombing accuracy, within range of the guns. Our target was the railroad marshaling yards on the edge of the city. The dangerous part is the long two- or three-minute bombing run [from the Initial Point of the run to the Target] when the plane is under the control of the bombardier. For accurate bombing it must be very steady, maintaining constant altitude, speed, and direction. That day everything worked as planned with a good bomb drop.
During the bomb run, the formation and each plane in the formation could not waver, could not attempt to evade enemy action. They had to maintain their steady course to the target in order to drop their bombs at the right moment in the right location to make the mission count. This action took bravery, courage, and nerves of steel of every airman to carry out his task.
Bombs away and head home
As we turned away from the target, preparing for our flight home, things changed very rapidly. Our far-right engine failed, and we had to drop out of formation since we could no longer keep up with the other planes.
Here, I leave you with a cliff-hanger. To find out what happened to Alan Purchase and the rest of the Leif Robert Ostnes crew of the 546th Bomb Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group, you may read the rest of Alan Purchase’s story on the 384th Bomb Group website.
And if you want to check out some of the other stories of the 384th Bomb Group, you will find many more presented on the website’s Stories page. You will find many personal stories, diaries, Veteran’s History Project interviews, videos, and more
This kind of information is always best presented by someone who lived it like 8th Air Force Navigator George Alan Purchase. Thank you, Alan, for recording your story to share with future generations. And thank you Scott Hahn and Fred Terzian for bringing it to my attention and sharing it with me.
George Alan Purchase personnel record, courtesy of 384thBombGroup.com
MY FIRST MISSION with the 8th Air Force During World War II by George Alan Purchase, courtesy of Fred Terzian, as published on 384BombGroup.com
384th Bomb Group Stories Page
With the exception of quotations from George Alan Purchase’s “MY FIRST MISSION with the 8th Air Force During World War II,” © Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2022